The taint of nepotism

Someone on Reddit wondered aloud whether Ryan Holiday’s early career—his apprenticeship to Robert Greene and Tucker Max, and his role at American Apparel—was tainted with nepotism. I wasn’t familiar with the exact definition of that word, so I looked it up. Turns out nepotism is, mostly, a top-down phenomenon; it’s people in positions of power and influence giving leg-ups to those they favour. But it works from the bottom-up too. For example, having an “in” with someone on the hiring committee for that job you applied for. Which left me thinking, “Duhhh. Of course his early career was tainted with nepotism. Everyone’s career is tainted with nepotism.

Human beings are biased towards those they like and those they think could be useful to them. So, any structure or system created by humans is going to possess those same biases. A machine learning algorithm, a hiring process, a method of governance; all are creations that inherit the flaws of their creators. 

This is what the Redditor railing against nepotism doesn’t get. Condemning nepotism, is, essentially, condemning certain undeniable human biases. And that’s like getting pissed at mortality. Get as antsy as you like. The world isn’t fair. It favours, in unequal measure and at different times, the bold, the cautious, the strong, the weak, the known, the unknown, the conformists and the contrarians. Sure, we strive to create a world, to create a society, and to create systems that are not discriminatory. But even if we manage that, human beings—because it is in our nature—will still seek to modify the game and co-opt the incentives. Wherever possible, sometimes ethically and sometimes unethically, we will try to create an asymmetrical situation that favours our interests more than the interests of others. It may not be “fair” or “right”, but it’s reality, and reality is the foundation upon which we should base our actions.