Why you should care
Because politicians should have your best interests at heart.
Last fall, everyone knew who the next president of France would be. The office would be held by François Fillon, conservative candidate, with his reputation as a squeaky-clean Margaret Thatcher type who offered “something different” by appearing to steer clear of the low-level corruption ever popular with politicians.
You’ll notice Fillon is not president. He was tanked by his own scandal, in which it was discovered he’d hired his wife and children to do nebulous jobs on the taxpayer’s centime. Fillon is still being investigated, and Emmanuel Macron — who tried to create an official position for his own wife as first lady, but dropped the idea when hundreds of thousands signed a petition against it — took the top spot. Now France’s parliament has voted not to repeat that tumultuous situation by banning MPs from hiring immediate family members, with fines of 45,000 euros if they fail to follow the rule. But why stop at France? It should be against the law — and common decency — for all politicians to hire family members.
If you don’t trust anyone but blood relatives, that’s who you hire.
Traditions surrounding nepotism vary country to country, says Jone L. Pearce, a professor of organization and management at University of California, Irvine, but they largely don’t work out well for people outside the family. For one thing, it promotes a dysfunctional work environment, where regular employees feel they can’t discipline or complain about their boss’ relatives. For another, firing people is a way for administrations (and companies) to signal a new direction. Firing people, Pearce says, “allows people to signal ‘We’re going to change things here.’ But you can’t fire a family member, right?”
If a White House deputy tried and failed to shepherd health care reform through Congress, for example, they might be fired — but when first lady Hillary Clinton did just that during the 1990s, firing her wasn’t an option. As Pearce says: “You can’t fire your wife!” Systemic nepotism is sometimes used by large companies to control employee behavior, encouraging those who want relatives hired to straighten up and fly right. But even that shuts out nonrelatives from those opportunities.
Actually, hiring family members is against the law in the U.S. Kind of. In 1967, Lyndon B. Johnson got his revenge on Bobby Kennedy — who was appointed attorney general in his brother John’s White House (much to Johnson’s chagrin) — by signing an anti-nepotism statute that would ensure that no future U.S. president could appoint his own family members to a position of such power.
Clearly that hasn’t worked out in President Donald Trump’s current administration, where both his daughter Ivanka and his son-in-law, Jared, retain unpaid, but influential positions within the West Wing. This is partly because legal experts are openly debating whether the statute applies to family members of the president in unpaid White House staff positions, and partly because to get people to follow the law someone has to enforce the law. As to why Trump has surrounded himself with family members, Pearce offers one the most common reasons for hiring blood relatives: If you don’t trust anyone but blood relatives, that’s who you hire. “Family members, usually their fates are tied together,” she says. “So you see nepotism in those kinds of environments.”
Another reason children get hired by their parents is to teach them a family business they’re expected to inherit. But presumably Trump knows that’s not how the presidency works — or at least it shouldn’t.