Upon hearing the news that Ted Kennedy’s death has meant the “end of the dynasty” for the US equivalent of political royalty, I got to musing on why the “dynasty” is done. There are dozens of Kennedy children and grandchildren running about, and a few–Teddy Jr. and Joseph (son of Robert) in the House, Kathleen Kennedy Townsend as lieutenant govenor of Maryland earlier this decade–have served in elected office. Thus there is enough biological material to keep the dynasty going. Why then, is it not?
The answer may be in the universal tendency of genetic decline in influential families. The logic goes like this: the first generation of any modern dynasty is characterised by “lift-from-the-bootstraps” ambition, entrepeneurship, innovative thinking, cunning, risk-taking, and flat out smarts. Through ruthlessness and hard work the progenitor of the dynasty emerges out of poverty and proceeds to achieve money, power, influence–or any combination thereof. As s/he ascends (it usually is a he), the first generation achiever moves out of his/her lower class station and begins to mingle with the hoi paloi. Eventually, as s/he reaches upper class status they Â breed with members of the established aristrocracy who are long on manners and etiquette and Â short on real achievement or talent. There begins the slide.
The first generation of children produced by this mix tend to have the progenitor’s determination and drive, as they hear first hand about the suffering and work it took to get them the silver spoon. They tend to reproduce the progenitor’s ambitions in politics, finance, enterprise or military affairs. They share the progenitor’s flaws but better reproduce his/her talents, which when coupled with the material advantages afforded to them, reinforce their positions as part of the elite. They proceed to breed with other members of the elite–some old school, some hereditary, some new blood, and go on to produce the third generation of aristocrats.
That is where the dynastic decline takes on momentum. 50 or so years removed from the hardships of the progenitor, his/her grandchildren live in the rarified air of the elites. They go to elite schools, they have maids and chauffeurs, they play with the most expensive toys, live in opulent houses, summer in beautiful vacation spots, jet around the world for pleasure, go to the best parties, sleep with the most handsome or beautiful people, and would not know a hard day’s work if it smacked them in the face (even though they are appointed to corporate boards and trusts). Most importantly, they can buy themselves out of trouble, and because they can, they do. Coupled with the lack of drive derived from their comfortable status, and with their ambition gene diluted by inter-marriage with members of established elites, this is the generation of decline.
The story of the Kennedy’s is well-known: bootlegger father with a penchant for the ladies and fascist inclinations. A generation of sons that included war heros (at least as far as the story goes), an assassinated president, an assassinated presidential front-runner and Senator, and Ted. Lest it be forgotten, it included Eunice Kennedy, the founder of the Special Olympics, who arguably may have influenced as many lives as did her brothers. Â Then came the grandkids—Maria Shriver, Robert Jr. Joseph, Kathleen, Teddy Jr and a a host of others. It is those others that matter here because they have done virtually nothing to advance the fortunes of the family or the community. In fact, many of that generation, and their fourth generation children, are most known for their celebrity antics and criminal transgressions and ability to escape the type of justice usually meted out to the less fortunate.
The Kennedy’s are not alone. Think of the Hilton dynasty. Think of the Rockefellers, Gettys or Carnegies. Think of Saddam Hussein’s sons. Think of Kim jung-il and his off-spring. Or European and Arab royalty. Everywhere one looks, regardless of culture or creed, the universal law of genetic decline is hard at work turning the off-spring of the mighty into social parasites and elite bludgers. Some will argue that it is not a genetic condition but the way in which they are socialised that brings about the decline. That is probably true, and since I am not a geneticist I cannot argue against the idea that it is nurture, rather than nature that produces the effect. But what I can say is that I see this process as a good thing.
The reason I believe that the universal law of genetic decline is a good thing is that it puts a natural shelf-life on any modern dynasty. Dynasties are to social life what monopolies are to capitalism: they stifle creativity, ambition and innovation, to say nothing of egalitarianism and equal treatment. Anything that breaks up these hierarchies is thus a public good, as it forces renovation, if not rejuvenation of elites Â by circulating new blood into them, blood that often times comes from lower rungs on the social totem pole.
So let us mark the end of the Kennedy era by honoring the things that Teddy and his family have contributed to US political life, and be thankful that their influence has apparently come to and end. Now the question remains, what about the status of the NZ elite? Or, more specifically on one issue: Old money has found its way into the National party presidency, whereas it is new money that leads its parliamentary wing and government. Is that sign of things on the upswing or things in decline for the blue side of the political spectrum?