Nepotism creates more than one kind of problem in institutions. One is that those outside the family don’t get a fair chance to compete for the positions in question....But the other is the damage done to independence of judgment and decision-making.
Over the course of the Bannon-Kushner struggle, many, reportedly including Kushner himself, have noted that he “can’t be fired.” But even those of us cheered at a little loss in status for Bannon can’t be too comfortable with the idea that a 36-year-old “real-estate guy” can be in charge of half a dozen major government portfolios and can’t be removed from them because the only person with firing authority trusts family over expertise and experience.
People who run large organizations reasonably seek to surround themselves with people they trust—but a crucial part of their job is adjudicating among them and holding them accountable. When, inevitably, Kushner comes into conflict with government officials who have actual knowledge of the things he’s now supposed to fix—Middle-East hands in the State Department, for example—do we think Trump will listen dispassionately to both sides?
The success of open-access orders has come in part because impersonal rules improve decision making. Impersonal capital markets do a better job than the king’s advisors, who are inclined to subsidize their friends and family. Democratic elections (for all their flaws) choose better rulers than the sheer hereditary chance of monarchies. Courts make better decisions when judges can neither be the relatives of, nor take bribes from, the parties before the bench. And bureaucratic institutions with good role differentiation—for all their flaws—allow for advice and ideas to be evaluated at least partly independently of who it is that offers them. Violating these rules and norms not only corrodes trust in the institutions’ fairness; it also undermines their effectiveness.
Nepotism isn’t bribery, but it is a kind of corruption nonetheless, one that weakens institutions that depend on impartiality. An administration that seems all too ready to treat public office as a private interest isn’t going to be improved by running that private interest as a family business.--Jacob T Levy "A Government of Laws, Not Son-in-Laws"@Niskanen
Levy's piece is worth reading in full (I quoted the last bit only), and I agree with nearly all of it. That would be a reason not to blog about it, but I also felt, it left some important angles untouched.
Let me start with a simple observation (which happens to be the one disagreement): Jared Kushner can be fired not just in the event he and Ivanka Trump were to divorce, but even in virtue of being married to Ivanka (the President's daughter). For, daughters and their husbands can fall out of favor in the musical chairs of clan politics. In particular, clan politics demands that even the most powerful members of the family are made to remember from time to time that their privileges are a function of the patriarch's will. (Some of the best analysis of Trump's clever use of such mechanisms is, in fact, to be found in an earlier essay by Levy [here; recall also my post].) If this much is right it entails, in fact, that the intrigue and infighting in Trump's White House are not a bug, but a feature.
I want to connect this last point with a topic I feel some trepidation writing about: the significance of the fact that Kushner is a very visible, modern orthodox Jew in a White House that is simultaneously explicitly pro-Zionist and not-too-subtly comfortable with a revival of American antisemitism and white nationalism [recall this post; and this one]--these latter forces are represented by Kushner's apparent rival, Steve Bannon and his allies. This creates the unfortunate dynamic that supporters of Bannon in the media and in the public have in Kushner a natural target of their frustrated resentment (because the head of the clan is untouchable) one that fits their preconceptions about Jewish, Cosmopolitan nefarious moneyed influence. (Kushner did not obtain his wealth through Trump.)
Here it may be useful to recall the role the court Jew played in Europe's history. It is a long established principle of political theory and practice, that a dynastic ruler needs to be surrounded by people whose loyalty is unquestioned. It turns out -- as a moment's reflection reveals -- that family members are on the whole unsuited for this role. For, a family member can, if s/he wishes depose the patriarch and aim to rule in his stead. (Siblings and children do that kind of thing.) So, able servants are needed that have (i) no hope of every ruling: slaves, eunuchs, foreigners, or people of the wrong religion/caste, etc. This lack of hope can be reinforced if (ii) they are despised by the people. (This mechanism has been well described by people as dissimilar as Ibn Khaldun and Ernest Gellner.) In democratic Athens, key functions of the state bureaucracy were, thus, held by slaves. Jews played versions of this role (as financiers and state bureaucrats) until -- due to a mixture of the Christian rejection of usury and the widespread Christian belief in Jewish deicide -- as late as the nineteenth century (in On the Origin of Totalitarianism, Arendt turns Walther Rathenau into the last of the Court Jews).
Thus, the court Jew is at the mercy of the patriarch, who provides the court Jew with protection from the populace that can be taken away at any time, and simultaneously the court Jew is a useful buffer between the patriarch and the population by implementing the ruler's (less popular) policies. The point is familiar enough from the biblical book, Esther, which deals explicitly with the circumstances of court Jew, power politics and its genocidal implications. (Recall that Yoram Hazony has given it a recent interpretation in God and Politics in Esther.) But arguably the perils and opportunities of this kind of polity are central to the Biblical narrative of the linked stories of Joseph and Moses (the contrasting exemplary ur-Models of court Jews).
Arendt, who is more critical of court Jews than I would be, emphasizes in her narrative that court Jews were most interested in developing "privileges and special liberties" not general principles of equality (or even solidarity with fellow, less fortunate Jews). That is to say, connections to power are made to work for those that will aid the entrenchment of power. This is entirely rational in a world perceived to be zero-sum. In my interpretation, that the world is zero-sum is the core (perhaps only) intellectual commitment of Trump and his most loyal supporters (recall here and here).
As I noted above (with a nod to classical Athens) the role of the court Jew is not incompatible with democracy. The existence of the type is, in fact, a characteristic of systems in which political elites mistrust each other. As nepotistic sabotage of the rule of law, "independence of judgment and decision-making" grows, we should expect more such characters.