The Trouble with Dynasties

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Ms. Laird, Ph.D., is the author of Pull: Networking and Success since Benjamin Franklin.

Why doesn’t George W. Bush fire Attorney General Alberto Gonzales? Like Donald Rumsfeld before him and, more recently, Paul Wolfowitz, Gonzales is causing President Bush political embarrassment and costing him political support. The President’s supporters praise his personal loyalty to subordinates. His critics charge him with arrogance and unwillingness to admit error. But both sides, while recognizing Bush’s loss of political capital, fail to recognize his protection of something he regards as more critical: his social capital.

As in so many other things, the obviously absurd things the President says belie not so absurd things that underlie them. In talking about his personal history, Mr. Bush seems oblivious to the huge benefits he has derived from his connections. During the 2000 campaign, he told Oprah Winfrey that all his parents had given him was “love.” Years earlier, in 1986 when his father was the U.S. vice president, he bemoaned that he was “all name and no money.”

Leaving aside how a man with his inheritance could feel that he had “no money,” how did Mr. Bush parlay his “name” into financial and political fortunes? The key to the riddle lies in the power of social capital: assets derived from connections and connectability that are based on mutual loyalties and expectations of reciprocity. Careers advance according to their sum of competence and connections. Within dynasties, however, connections not only outweigh the need for competence; they overshadow any appreciation for competence and value loyalty above all.

Mr. Bush’s rich holdings in social capital include a long family history of elite connections. His most important connection back in 1986 was his father, then U.S. vice president and soon to be president. That link to power drew money and influence to the son like metal filings to a magnet. A network of Texas oilmen pulled him in and financed his lucrative 1989 Texas Rangers investment within months of George H. W. Bush’s presidential inauguration. While Mr. Bush was governor of Texas, some of these same oilmen brokered investments for him that went into a blind trust. In theory Governor Bush knew nothing about these deals; he profited, nonetheless. In theory, and as he protested, the governor also knew nothing about the multitude of ways his networks profited through dealings with the state of Texas.

Let’s assume that Mr. Bush’s denials of any improprieties on his part are genuine. Whether president or governor, when Mr. Bush has learned about questionable deals or appointments, he has neither renounced nor corrected them. Dynasties mean that loyalty to networks trumps loyalty to duty and to nation.

Presidential candidate Bush promised to bring the practices he had learned as a successful businessman to government. He did do that; but his foremost lesson as the beneficiary of dynastic social capital was not reliance on competence or solid accounting practices. It was loyalty to one’s networks. Why not? His had made him very rich and powerful.

Politics and business are social processes. The Founders intended that a “government of laws, and not of men,” as embodied in the Constitution and legal reforms ever since, would reduce the social features of government. All but the highest positions in government service are supposed to go to professionals with objectively recognized abilities and experience. Federal prosecutors are political appointees, but they are not supposed to be overt partisan operatives. “Supposed to,” however, runs up against the reality of the importance of social capital in all walks of life. The question for government is always how to balance loyalty to one’s social networks with respect for performance, both in competence and integrity. President Bush’s life history leads him to value his personal networks above all else. Dynasties always lead in the same, ancient direction.

China’s long history has seen a series of dynastic cycles. At the downturn of each cycle, favoring connections over competence drove the country toward ruin. Failing infrastructure led to “natural” disasters, unevenly distributed taxes devastated populations, and foolish wars wore down resources. Through corruption, dynasties destroy governments, which then become instruments of the favored networks, not of their nations. The only antidote is to value what the Bush dynasty has done its best to destroy: accountability and competence. Government by connections is not a fluke of President Bush’s personality; it is how dynasties operate.

Related Links

  • Nicholas Kristoff: America's dynastic politics

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    More Comments:

    Kevin R. C. Gutzman - 5/7/2007

    A Spaniard might think that the Bourbons were "still with us," too.

    Nicholas Clifford - 5/7/2007

    Well, of course there are some 2-man dynasties in Chinese history -- one thinks of the Qin and the Sui, for instance. But others lasted centuries -- the Han, Tang, Ming, and Qing, among them, and the reasons for their falls are a good deal more complex than simply a reliance on personal connections.

    And if we look elsewhere in the world, what about the Habsburgs, the Bourbons, or the Hanoverians? They all had pretty good runs for their money, however one might judge them today (the last named is, after all, still with us, though traveling under the more English name of Windsor, and its protagonist recently featured, with the royal corgies, in a Major Motion Picture).

    And, if that's not good enough for you, look at the Japanese emperor -- a descendant of the Sun Goddess, Amaterasu Omikami, and still on the throne. (Admittedly, her date is a bit difficult to find).