Recently, there was yet another hullabaloo here in Utah over “cronyism,” this time in the administration of the state prison system, with charges and countercharges and the head of the prison system resolutely declaring that there was no favoritism, while the rank-and-file claim that standards of performance and conduct for the top administrators are far more lax than for most employees. That’s on top of continuing charges that the Republicans support “crony capitalism,” while they deny it and claim that free enterprise rewards the best and that Democrats who attack any form of capitalism are socialists or communists… or something like that.

The plain fact of the matter is that, in some form or another, cronyism exists everywhere in society, from rich Republicans to LGBT activists, from country clubs to welfare mothers.  It exists because human beings like to form groups and most groups are formed from people with at least one overriding shared interest, if not many.  The individuals in most such groups tend to think in the same fashion and the more insulated a group is, the more likely this is to occur.  As one example, a recent study whose results were noted in the Christian Science Monitor found that wealthy individuals who lived and interacted primarily with other wealthy individuals gave far less to charitable causes than did wealthy individuals who interacted with and had daily contact with those of poor and modest means.  In fact, the more insulated wealthy, on average, contributed 50% less as a percentage of their income than did the less “insulated” wealthy.  Another study found that men who had more than one daughter were markedly more sympathetic to so-called women’s issues, such as equal pay and equal employment opportunity, than were men with only a single daughter or no daughters.

None of this should be surprising.  Many groups follow their unspoken group consensus… and then are surprised to find, or even deny vehemently, that they are practicing cronyism.  They’ve never considered it.  It’s just the way they operate.

Generally, for example, here in Utah, the vast majority of politicians are members of the LDS faith, and they tend to pass laws which reflect the patriarchal nature of the culture.  There are continual charges of cronyism, some of which are definitely founded, such as the recent appointment of the director of the Board of Regents.  One of the finalist candidates, the director of the commission on higher education in a midwestern state, was asked to apply.  He had a Ph.D., had received his undergraduate degree and master’s degree from a state university in Utah and had taught at a Utah university for a number of years, then gone on to high level administrative positions in other states, where he served with distinction for some fifteen years.   When he arrived for his interview, one of the first questions he was asked was whether he’d ever been in Utah before – and he’d been requested to apply and had sent a complete resume which listed his Utah connections!  The legislature selected the former director of public affairs for the board, who has never taught full-time, never actually run any organization, and does not have an advanced degree.  From the news releases surrounding the appointment, it was fairly clear that these politicians weren’t even conscious of their cronyism.  They picked someone with whom they were comfortable, and seemed unaware of the fact that other qualifications just might have been better and/or more appropriate.

I’ve also seen the same sort of group-think on the other side, when the upper administration of a university in an eastern state was controlled by extraordinarily left-wing women, who seemed honestly to believe that no man under any circumstances could possibly be interested in anything but finding a way to dominate and oppress women and minorities.  While the male historical track record in dealing with women and minorities is nothing to brag about, this attitude seemed a bit excessive to me… and the result of the attitude was that, for a time, essentially no men were considered for higher positions and even women who didn’t buy into the mindset were marginalized… the result being what amounted to feminist cronyism.

From what I’ve seen, as illustrated by these two examples, a great deal of cronyism arises from people being uncomfortable with people who have different backgrounds and viewpoints, and, often, a lack of awareness that, at times, no unbiased interpretation of the facts would support their views.  The problem we as a nation face is that high technology allows groups greater self-selection, and that greater self-selection promotes a more monolithic view in each group, with the result that the groups operate as though their view is the only one that has any validity.

Might this just be another factor in the growing political and economic polarization in the United States?


6 thoughts on “Cronyism”

  1. Tim says:

    In corporate life, I have seen company presidents and VPs surround themselves with like minded people who share the same values and bias.

    The problem is that these groups all eventually seem to have failed and were disbanded. My observation has been that the best teams are formed from people with complementing strengths, which means a tension will exist. In my experience this tension is usually beneficial (though not always). But the outcome seems always ro be better than that of a team formed from people who agree with each other all of the time.

    I suppose cronyism has the same flaws, in that you get a weaker outcome.

  2. JakeB says:

    I wonder how much of it is the echo chamber effect, the conscious or unconscious peer pressure that reduces a multitude of voices to a single line, and how much of it is owing to the character of those who tolerate those with whom they disagree, as Tim notes. That is, to what degree does being the type of person who welcomes diversity (“let a thousand flowers bloom!”, as that champion of diversity Mao Tse-tung once said 🙂 ) or rather isn’t unduly distressed by interaction with those that disagree with him or her inherently protect against the mediocritizing effects of cronyism?

  3. Steve says:

    Diversity and unity are both very important to a family, community group, business organization and country. Too much of one leads to stagnation and oppression. Too much of the other leads to chaos and disintegration. Having a real family/community/church/business or country goal, and working toward that goal as a team can unify very different people.

    During the debate last night I was trying to think what the unifying cause or goal of the United State is, or could be. I worry that we don’t seem to have one. There are so many obvious choices such as caring for children or the environment, but unfortunately it seems that war has been the only unifying cause.

    As a nation we need to unite around some common core or our diversity will tear us apart. Governmental power is not sufficient to hold a nation together as the Soviet Union discovered after eighty years of turmoil.

  4. Tim says:

    To Steve. Scarily I watched a documentary last night called ‘the power of nightmares’ which won a Cannes award in 2005 and concerned the invention of a common cause to rally around – in this case the promotion of the Cold War by the neoConservative movement, and later the same with a brand termed Al Queda. War has always been a good rallying point and I cannot think of any other cause which comes close, unfortunately.

  5. R. Hamilton says:

    I’d argue the left is at least as guilty of “crony capitalism” as the right. The right at least theoretically believes in keeping regulation down to the minimum for which there’s a compelling justification (although in practice doesn’t often follow through on that). The left believes in regulating darn near everything for the common good, with them of course as arbiters of what that is and subsidized candyman and vote-buyers. So naturally, the regulated cozy up to the regulators and to their political bosses, and the political bosses cash in as much as they can on it.

    I go back to what I’ve said before: have few enough laws and regulations that it’s actually possible to consistently enforce them, taking away the power of the executive to reward or punish with a blind eye or high priority enforcement.

    Disentanglement requires minimal relationship in EITHER direction.

    Private corruption is always better than public corruption – one can always choose to work for someone else or buy from someone else…notwithstanding that there may be some hardship in doing so. The only way to choose on the public front is to be VERY politically active, or to emigrate.

  6. Joe says:

    @LEM: There is an interesting paper about how morality shifts depending whether one is a member or not of a group:

    If you have foreign friends, you’ll often see them react in horror at what your country did, but minimize the failings of their own country. The same dynamic occurs among followers of different religions, different political parties or even people of different scientific streams of thought. It’s stupid but everyone seems to do it.

    @Tim: In the beginning War unites. But so does peace. Once anything becomes the norm, it no longer shocks, and people go back to caring about the rat race.

    What concerns me these days is the lack of ideas. Milton Friedman was right — it’s a shame to let a shock go to waste. His point was that people turn towards those who appear to have ideas when a shock occurs, and they get to do something.

    I am struck by the lack of ideas at the debate at a time when the melting arctic suggests massive irreversible releases of methane catapulting us into a totally different climate, at a time when the world economy is on the brink (Euro unraveling, China heading for a hard landing) and nationalistic tensions are rising even among wealthy nations (Japan-China dispute for instance) let alone the fanatics of the world. Remember that the Arab spring was not due to the internet, it was due to lack of food, and this year’s harvests are again low due to the weather.

    Even ignoring those problems, the key topic of the debates “jobs, jobs, jobs” was not properly addressed. A large cause of the decline in manufacturing comes from automation. That’s going to become the norm. Expect fewer taxi drivers, truck drivers, bus drivers, UPS delivery people, farm workers, supermarket people, chefs, and even surgeons. There’s automation in the works for all those tasks and more. And this will require massive changes to how our society operates, how taxes are collected and how the unemployed are supported. This “recession” is different. The jobs aren’t coming back.

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