How Political Ignorance Causes Political Nepotism:

In a September interview with the New York Sun, the soon-to-be assassinated Benazir Bhutto explained how political ignorance fosters political nepotism by leading voters to support canddiates who are relatives of popular politicians (hat tip Kerry Howley):

Q: Why do you think that the U.S. seems to have a harder time with women at the highest level of power than other countries?

A [Benazir Bhutto]: In a country like Pakistan or India, when a charismatic leader dies, people are not sure that the traditions he symbolized will continue—there’s a lot of illiteracy and there isn’t the same access to information. So they tend to transfer allegiance from a male leader to a female descendant, in the hope that his policies will be continued. But in Westernized societies, it’s a little different, because people have greater education and greater access to information—they don’t have the same need to be sure of the message of the leader.

Because voters know very little about the details of candidates' ideology and issue positions, they use a candidate's family affiliation with a popular political leader as an information shortcut. Voters could instead analyze each candidates' qualifications and ideology in detail (though, as Bhutto noted, that may be impossible for those who are illiterate or poorly educated). However, rational ignorance ensures that most of them have neither the time nor the incentive to do so. Bhutto herself, of course, rose to power in Pakistan in large part because voters associated her with her father, a popular politician who had been executed by a military dictator in 1979.

Bhutto was wrong to assume that this logic is limited to female politicians in economically backward societies. Right here in the United States, George W. Bush would probably never have become president if not for the voter name recognition he enjoyed by virtue of being the son of a former president. Hillary Clinton would not now be a frontrunner for the Democratic nomination if not for her association with her popular ex-president husband. Few of the many Kennedys who have achieved elected office would have done so absent their family name. To paraphrase one of Senator Ted Kennedy's electoral opponents, he would never have made it to the Senate if his name were not Edward Moore Kennedy but Edward Moore.

Is this kind of ignorance-induced voter nepotism a bad thing? I would suggest that it often is. Political leaders who achieve high office in large part because of nepotism are likely to be less qualified, on average, than those who reach it by virtue of their own achievements. This is not surprising; it takes a lot less ability to win office on your daddy's or spouses coat tails than to do so without it. George W. Bush's incompetence on many issues is a case in point. Most of the Third World politicians who became heads of government by this means were also failures in office (see the examples Kerry Howley gives in her post linked above). Benazir Bhutto, for all her recent courage in opposing military dictatorship and radical Islamism, was ineffective in her two terms as prime Minister of Pakistan in the 1990s. Isabel Peron's disastrous term as president of Argentina after the death of her husband Juan Peron helped set the stage for a brutal military dictatorship (not entirely unlike the way that Bhutto's failures in office helped pave the way for Purvez Musharraf's military coup).

On rare occasions, the nepotism information shortcut pays off. Winston Churchill was first elected to Parliament in large part because voters associated him with his father, Lord Randolph Churchill, a popular Conservative politician of the 1880s. However, Bush, Bhutto, and the lesser Kennedys are more typical beneficiaries of ignorance-induced political nepotism than Churchill.

As Bhutto pointed out, this form of nepotism does have one potential advantage: it can sometimes pave the way for women to reach high office in sexist patriarchal societies that might not otherwise accept them in such positions. I don't deny that such achievements have some symbolic value. But I'm not convinced that they're worth the high price we pay for them in the form of policy disasters caused by poor leadership. Moreover, it's not clear how much of a breakthrough for women such events really represent if people recognize that the women in question reached high office primarily because of their family connections. To my mind, the true breakthroughs for women in underdeveloped societies are likely to come when their opportunities and social status increase as a result of economic development. Ineffective political leaders of either gender are likely to set back such development - and with it the cause of women's rights.