Family rule is under siege, at last

February 18, 2011


Dictatorship is under siege throughout the Arab world: fingers are crossed that democracy will prevail. Something else is under siege, too — the notion of family rule. This is among the oldest, and most harmful, concepts in human society. Is it about to vanish at last?

For centuries, in some cases for millennia, regions and nations have been ruled by families — either formally as royalty, or de facto via warlords, khans and shoguns who in most cases inherited their positions. As recently as a century ago, families still ran most of Europe, all of Russia and Japan, while an assortment of warlord-like figures with inherited standing ran much of what’s now South America and the Middle East, and kings and emperors controlled the subcontinent and most of Africa.

Today family rule has been vanquished, or reduced to constitutional status, in most of the world. The big exceptions are Cuba, North Korea, the Middle East, and parts of Africa and Pakistan. The fall of Hosni Mubarak in Egypt, following a 30-year warlord-style rule — and the unlikelihood that his sons will inherit control of the country, as Mubarak planned — represents a major subtraction from the remaining portion of the globe under family control.

Let’s hope the trend continues. Today China, India, the United States, Indonesia and Brazil, the world’s five largest nations, representing more than half of the global population, have abolished all forms of inherited rule. Much of the rest of the world has done or is doing the same. This is no guarantee of happiness, of course. Open systems can be chaotic (the United States), still lack personal freedom (China) or be poorly administered (Italy). But in the main, ending family rule has been good for societies that achieve this.

Mubarak kept Egypt out of war, but that’s the only positive that can be attached to his three decades of warlord rule. Egypt’s economy stagnated, while theft of public funds by Mubarak and his family members was rampant.

Backwardness, corruption and repression are the hallmarks of all nations still suffering under family rule. Most of the Persian Gulf has kings or emirs whose sole accomplishments in life are the accidents of their births; North Korea has the maniacal and incompetent Jung-Il family; Cuba has the Castros, both are one thousand times more concerned with personal power than with the welfare of Cubans.

Perhaps it was inevitable that in a simpler past, family rule would have been a part of human culture. In the modern era, family rule differs little, in structure and function, from organized crime. Now the crime boss of Egypt is out, following the removal of the crime boss of Tunisia.

We can hope the example will spread to other parts of the region, and that more family rulers will fail or flee. And we can hope that the United States will not backslide. The current generation has seen America’s first presidential succession, from George Hebert Walker Bush to his son George W. Bush. The younger Bush’s brother Jeb may be a future presidential candidate, while there remains a chance Hillary Clinton, wife of a former president, could be elected to the White House. George W. Bush was freely chosen for his post, rather than strong-arming his way to rule. But family rule is family rule — not good for any nation.

Bahrain, where the current strongest protests are occurring, is ruled by an absolute monarch whose primary achievement in life was being handed a crown by his father. The sooner his family’s rule ends, the better. The sooner the whole concept of family rule fades into history, the better off the human family will be.

Photo caption: Tunisian protesters stand in front of the prime minister’s building during a demonstration in Tunis, January 21, 2011. The graffiti reads “death to dictatorship”. REUTERS/Zohra Bensemra


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granted, “Dubya” certainly wasn’t the greatest president we’ve have, but the suggestion that someone shouldn’t be the ruler of a country simply because someone related to him once was, doesn’t really make any sense. you admit yourself that he was freely elected (insane conspiracy theorists – i’m not going to debate this one with you, so moving on), but somehow because his father was also a president, he’s unqualifed to rule himself? the arguement does not make any sense.

Posted by tylerm11 | Report as abusive

Generally insightful column, as always, but your statement that “the current generation has seen America’s first presidential succession” is wrong. John Quincy Adams was set up by John Adams to be a strong candidate. Also equally disturbing was Joe Kennedy’s influence in getting John F. Kennedy elected. I of course agree that dynasties like the Clintons, Bushes, and Kennedys are bad for democracy, but they are not a distinctly modern phenomenon.

Posted by jayroddy | Report as abusive

I think the commentary makes a good point. There is no room in today’s society for positions and titles to be inherited. It happens in the political world on all levels, Federal, State and Local, it also happens in the business world. It is an important time to entrust one by merit, but what is also equally as important is ones accountability. I think this has been a big problem for way too long. A true democracy won’t function without it. I am keeping my fingers crossed that democracy will prevail but we’ll just have to wait and see

Posted by tricia3 | Report as abusive

From a western viewpoint, one can argue that N Africa and Mid East has been trapped in feudal society for the convenience and benefit of the Ottoman, English/French and US/Russian “empires” based on more modern technology and more effective democratic capitalist and mobilised marxist political systems. Dynasty and its diseases is well analysed and understood in British, French, American etc history, and political thinking and processes.
Also Islam seems to be hypocritical in claims of leveling all and applying justice before its god, while actually supporting social structures dating from the time of Muhammad which lead to a majority of the population treated as livestock by ruling families or tribes.
One can hardly blame the Americans for the decay and dark days of the Ottoman empire. Arab people have to catch up with making their own history.

Posted by Neurochuck | Report as abusive

Dear Neurochuck,
I am spending this time just to clarify few things. Please note Islam is same that was 1400 years ago……it will not change at will and wish of people…people have to join the circle of Islam and not Islam has to fit to the circle of individuals…like in a country every one has to fall in the circile of national laws…
Please note, present day muslim countries are a million mile away from Islam…You see more of good things in west than in Arab countries…Neither USA nor any empire can be blamed for this dark-period of Islam…muslims have to change to compete…
Islam is for human rights…Much can be discussed on this…Muhammad (PBUH) nor his comapnions those who ruled closely after him…Non-was a tribe chief…No-Son of a King…But Men of Character…They never had $Billions in Swiss and US banks (unlike present day arab kings & Mr Mubarik)…but used to sleep on floor…used to have on meal…As they very not hungry…they wanted to share national welth with people…they never drank blood of poor people…
But when time passed… Muslim became corrupt and ignorant…BUT Surely Islam is as pure as it was 1400 years ago…
Please read the Islamic Concept of life…it is different from dead communisim and dying capatalism.

Posted by awan92 | Report as abusive

Family rule has not really been abolished in most of the “western” world either. The societies are capitalistic societies and its main value and power instrument, capital, is indeed inherited. A large part of power is still residing in families and still passed on from generation to generation.

Posted by YourConscience | Report as abusive

At least get your names right. The KIM family runs North Korea, not the ‘Jung-il’ family.

Posted by singlemalt64 | Report as abusive

The reality is that Easterbrook must explain how family rule brought the human species, over 40,000 years, from the level of being just one more wild animal, to the level of civilization we possess today, in order to justify his argument that family rule is harmful, and he does not do that. These intellectuals and occupational propagandists are always trying to run down kingships and ‘family rule’, and yet they avoid the fallacy in their reasoning with all their strength and cunning. Because of one bad period a couple of hundred years ago, the group-think has become that monarchy is somehow bad, even though monarchy brought us all the way from being beasts to being civilized. Go figure.

One theory is that the study of history is simply too limited. The sad reality is that history books must be interesting and exciting, or they don’t sell. Publishers won’t buy boring history books that tell the truth of the generations and centuries of peace and quiet under family rule, the overwhelming majority of years out of the past. Historians must focus on all the wars and conflicts, the bad kings and queens, the scandals and gossip, just to make the books interesting, so they’ll sell. Generation after generation goes through school, to graduate with a totally erroneous image of what human history was actually like. Quiet, peaceful, one adequate king after another, millennia of dull, boring normalcy.

Instead, we have an entire society utterly convinced human history was nothing but a long, continuous series of wars and cruel kings, one helpless generation after another of pain and torment, a view so slanted and skewed it’s like a child’s comic book.

Thus we get absurd fallacies like this essay, so wildly untruthful and disconnected from reality that it’s like a comic book itself. And this stuff qualifies as GOOD analysis in our current civilization. An honest man could weep in despair for the human species, when this kind of writing is actually BETTER than most.

Posted by FirstAdvisor | Report as abusive

As the dynastic model falls into the dustbin of history, we still need to be wary of aristocracies. That is how we ended up with the disastrous GW Bush presidency, a national embarrassment on the world stage.

He was not a scholar and would never have been accepted at Yale on his own merit.

If he had been just an ordinary businessman in Texas, he would never have risen to national prominence. In fact, his business ventures faired poorly and required the assistance of Saudi money.

Posted by breezinthru | Report as abusive

The Romans learned the hard way that Family rule was usually a bad idea (excuse my spelling of some of the names). Octavian Augustus (the first emperor) was a good ruler, but his four followers who were all related by blood or marriage (Tiberius, Caligula, Claudius, Nero) were all pretty bad. Vespasian was a strong leader, but his two sons were bad. Then came the “good” emperors (Nerva, Trajan, Hadrian, Antonnias Pius, and Marcus Aurelius), none of which were related to each other, but all of which were chosen because of their ability to be leaders. But then Commodus, the son of Marcus Aurelius was allowed to assume rule after his father’s death. He was an awful ruler. Anyway, George W Bush, the son of a previous president, was one of our worse presidents. He had guts, but no common sense. It is sad he was reelected to a second term. One final note. Octavian Augustus WAS related distantly to Julius Caesar, but was chosen by Julius Caesar because he was impressed with him. Also, Franklin Roosevelt and Teddy Roosevelt were distantly related, and of course both excellent leaders.

Posted by 123456951 | Report as abusive

Democracy doesn’t stop nepotism, family rule, or jobs for the boys. Democracy can only work in countries that have a very well educated voter base. Here in Argentina people vote for parcels of food, it pay’s polititions to keep the population ignorant in a democracy, they’re more easily manipulated. The middle east wont be ready for democracy for another 100 years. Why would you have people vote that dont know what they’re voting for and care even less? Better to have Chinas form of democracy, where only civic leaders may vote, at least they can read and write.

Posted by leggett | Report as abusive

You have rightly named them warlord-like figures. But you get a system of governance, you deserve. Unless you object to them, raise a voice against them, they persist and continue to propagate themselves. However, also responsible for the misery of these people (ruled by families of thugs)are so called world leaders (not statesmen) who hardly see beyond their gains and ignore the hardship of the mankind as such.

Posted by dwalakh | Report as abusive

The problem with family rule is that a leader who earns their position is nearly always superior to one who simply inherits it.
Why should anyone deserve to be given control of a nation for no reason other than who their parents are? To assume that means they are a qualified or noble leader in any way is ridiculous – history has proven the incompetence of such people time and again.

Posted by rtgunlimited | Report as abusive


What do you know about Prophet Muhammad?

The prophet lived like an ordinary man, he slept under trees and made sure every citizen of his tribe went to sleep stomach full.

Compare that to today’s leaders?

The prophets have set the examples for all generations. As long as your leaders will roll in limousines and live in palaces (WH including) people will not feel right and revolutions will take place.

Find a leader who connects to a common man and is not scared to walk freely in the nation he leads.


Posted by MPontarelli | Report as abusive

Always entertaining, Mr Easterbrook. “The … US… [has] now abolished all form of family rule… Let’s hopt that the US doesn’t ‘backslide\'”? Are you kidding me? For quite awhile I assumed that you are intelligent man with a much different perspective than I, but I am beginning to call into question my own assessment. You need a reality pill.

Posted by mheld45 | Report as abusive

Corruption and repression are the hallmarks.. of politics everywhere especially the Middle East.

Posted by jsg | Report as abusive

It offends American ideals, I think, to read assertions like “George W. Bush was freely chosen to his post.” Well, sort of, if you ignore the partisan 5-4 split in Gore v. Bush and the way the Electoral College perverts democracy and the notion of one person, one vote. The EC, an anachronism devised as a compromise to appease slaveholding states, enabled 500-some Floridians to essentially overrule Gore’s 500,000-plus advantage in the nationwide popular vote. So the plurality got screwed, and pundits would do history a service by adding this asterisk to their commentary.
.. Why, just the other day, speaking of the Middle East, President Obama expressed the American value that a nation’s government should reflect the will of its people (which simply did not happen in 2000)…
The irony here is that if W had governed more from the center like his famously prudent, coalition-building, internationalist daddy–instead of taking cues from Cheney–we might have President Jeb now.

Posted by scottduke | Report as abusive

I do not think that these Islamic states are civilised enough for democracy. They seem to have as much troble living together as they do accepting the right to exist of the ‘infidels’ and therefore dictatorship seems to be the only alternative to anarchy. If so, it is quite dangerous and irresponsible for us to seek to impose our values on them- we did it in Iraq and it caused an ongoing civil war which, in my view, Bliar and Bush should be tried for it.

Posted by JamesRi | Report as abusive

{ty: that someone shouldn’t be the ruler of a country simply because someone related to him once was, doesn’t really make any sense}

You did not understand.

It’s like market branding. Once the brand is established commonly, then sales more or less follow simply.

Which is why Bush 2 was such an alarming failure as regards, Bush 1, but we voted for hims twice.

In a nation of more than 300 million people, we can find sufficient talent for a competent political class. But, as a body politic, we have not sought one.

Politicians are “sold” like soap powder, each promising to wash “whiter than white”. Each disappointing us in one way or another, some worse than others.

Which means what? That we, as a nation, are politically naive. That we cannot base an election on fact and competence as articulated by a candidate. No, we look for someone who has 2.3 children, like us. Who seems to have the same values as us. (Which are often fabricates.) I.e., who seems like a “nice person”, as we think we are.

It’s all marketing and no substance. But since Bush 1 was such a nice guy, certainly Bush 2 must be one also. Not really. And will we elect Bush 3 to see if he is, in fact, a “nice guy” (like his dad)?

He’s hoping on it.

Which is why dynasties, of any kind, are not necessarily the best way to chose our leaders.

Posted by deLafayette | Report as abusive

The Nehru dynasty has survived rather well in an ostensible democracy.

Posted by PeterFV | Report as abusive

DeLafayette inadvertently underscores my point in saying that “we” voted Bush 2 twice. That is simply not true. In 2000, we the people–or at least, we the plurality –voted for Gore, not Bush, by a popular vote margin of more than 500,000. I believe was larger than some other close elections, such as Kennedy’s victory over Nixon. The ludicrous math of the Electoral College thus set the stage for starkly divided 2004, in which Bush 2 got the most votes for president in history–and John Kerry got the second most ever…. I have little hope that the EC will be abolished, since it protects the interests of party control in big states and gives small state inordinate power. But it obviously does not guarantee to produce a government that reflects the will of the people–and it boggles the mind to think that the plurality of voters were treated fairly in 2000… Family dynasties that are freely chosen don’t bother me. Voters getting the shaft should bother every one.

Posted by scottduke | Report as abusive

I wish I could drop it, but I don’t like being called insane for knowing the truth. GWB rigged the hell out of the 2000 election. Do you think it’s just a coincidence that there were so many voter irregularities in the state run by GWB’s brother (which happened to decide the election)? A quick google search will turn up enough irrefutable evidence that you might reconsider your position, but I bet you’d rather just call people you disagree with crazy while you live in your litte fantasy world.

There’s no reasoning with ignorant idiots. George Bush did nothing to help this country. He sold our futures to Europe and China and the American public ate it up because we like to pretend blind allegiance is patriotism. You might not get the politician you want, but don’t pretend it doesn’t make any difference. If McCain were elected over Obama, we’d have no health care reform, a war in Iran, and the worlds dumbest VP. I still think we made the right choice.

Posted by Himynameis | Report as abusive

Terminology is important. As tylerm11 pointed out in his post conspiracy theories notwithstanding (rigged elections, influences for the candidates, etc.) the President of the United States does not “rule” the land. The President is an elected official who leads the nation on behave of its citizens. Unless the constitution is abolished that’s the law of the land. There could be 100 successions of family memebers elected to the presidency but as long as they are elected in accordance with the constitution(again conspiracy theories notwithstanding) they have to lead on behalf of the citizens. Rulers, dictators, monarchies rule OVER the people, not lead FOR them. That’s a big difference when making the comparison.

Posted by iflydaplanes | Report as abusive