Inheriting power: How birthright determines success in today’s world

Aug 05, 2023
What can be done to restore the fair go? Is there a peaceful way to redistribute wealth to achieve greater opportunities and a better life for all? Source: Getty

The finale of the television series Succession (shown here on Foxtel and Binge) got me thinking about dynasties and who gets a fair go.

In Succession, the media empire founded by Logan Roy is not inherited by his children. So damaged by their tyrannical father, each of the Roy siblings is too flawed, in one way or another, to succeed him. Many will say that in the finale of Succession, the (unworthy) Roy children get their comeuppance, but do they?

Having lost control of their father’s media empire, each sibling still walks away with a fortune that is more than enough to live in luxury for several lifetimes. Indeed, the Roy siblings leave our screens with a pocketful of exciting choices in hand. Whatever they do, money makes money and their fortunes will surely grow. If only the rest of us could be so lucky.  

The Roy family in Succession is fictional, but the similarities between it and the Murdoch family, headed by media mogul, Rupert Murdoch, are hardly coincidental. Rupert Murdoch has been married four times and has six children. Those with the highest profile are Elisabeth, Lachlan and James. While Elisabeth’s prospects have been sidelined, pundits have long speculated about which of the two brothers will succeed their father.

Whatever arrangement is finally reached, the Murdoch family may sit on enough wealth to buy its own country (and more). As in the case of the fictional Roys, the Murdoch fortune will underwrite spectacularly privileged lives for Rupert’s descendants, regardless of their personal potential.

Putting the (fictional) Roys and the real-life Murdochs aside for the moment, the crowning of our new King has put royal dynasties in the spotlight. There are currently 43 sovereign states around the world where a monarch is the head of state.  Apart from those countries in the British Commonwealth, they include Belgium, Denmark, Norway, Sweden, the Netherlands, Japan, Thailand, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Jordan and Tonga.   

The Australian Republican movement questions the relevance of the British monarchy to modern Australia, but would the average Australian be any better off living in a republic? Unfortunately, my research on this topic has led me to conclude that if and when we replace our king (or queen) with a president, we will, more than likely, end up swapping a hereditary dynasty for a political one, and it turns out that having a president is little different to having a King. 

In the US, for example, Americans simply elect a new king every four years or so and call them the president. What’s in a name, as they say? US presidents can install their own administrations and appoint cronies and relatives to powerful positions. They make treaties, sign and veto bills, act as commander-in-chief during the war, grant pardons and call out the military.  

There is little to distinguish a political dynasty from a monarchy. Once again, the United States of America provides examples. The fabulously wealthy Kennedy family has been a mainstay in American politics since Patrick Joseph Kennedy was elected to the Massachusetts state legislature in 1884.

Subsequently, Kennedys have been senators, representatives, US ambassadors and envoys, the US Attorney General and, of course, John F Kennedy was the 35th US President. Joseph Kennedy III is currently the US Special Envoy to Northern Ireland and Caroline Kennedy has been the US Ambassador to Australia since 2022. 

US Political dynasties (the new aristocracies, perhaps) don’t stop with the Kennedys, either. George W. Bush (43rd US President) is the son of George Bush (41st US President).  John Quincy Adams (6th US President) was the son of John Adams (2nd US President).  Benjamin Harrison (23rd US President) was the grandson of William Henry Harrison (9th US President). Indeed, Franklin Delano Roosevelt (32nd US President) was the fifth cousin of Theodore Roosevelt (26th US President) and was distantly related to another eleven US Presidents!  

Political dynasties to rival those in the United States, include the Nehru-Gandhi political dynasty in India and the Marcos dynasty in the Philippines. Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau is the son of the previous Canadian Prime Minister, Pierre Trudeau.  In Pakistan Benazir Bhutto, who served as the eleventh and thirteenth Prime Minister was the daughter of Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, who served as the fourth and the ninth PM – and so it goes. 

Business or commercial dynasties also serve to concentrate privilege and influence in the hands of billionaire families. Some (and these are but a few), such as the Packers (Australian media), the Heinekens (Dutch beer), the Rothschilds (European banking), the Waltons (US Walmart), the Fords (US automobiles) and the Lauders (US cosmetics) have become household names.

Meanwhile, new billionaire families are emerging from the eye-watering success of Jeff Bezos (Amazon), Elon Musk (Tesla and SpaceX) and Bill Gates (Microsoft). Others, less visible wealthy families, control boardrooms, property and finance.

The world of entertainment is dominated by dynasties, too.

Examples, old and new, include the Barrymores (Lionel, John, John Jnr, Ethyl and Drew), the Fondas (Henry, Peter, Jane, Bridget, Malcolm Vadim) the Coppolas (Francis Ford, Eleanor, Sofia, Mark, Gian Carlo, Nicholas Cage, Jason Swartzman and more)  the Baldwins (Alec, Daniel, Billy, Stephen, Ireland, Hailey, plus several Baldwin wives such as Kim Bassinger) the Bridges (Lloyd, Jeff, Beau and Emily), the Smiths (Will, his wife Jada and children, Willow and Jaden) and the Kardashians (Kris Jenner, Kim, Rob, Khloe, Kourtney, Kendall, Kylie and their various relatives).  

It is human nature to provide for, protect and privilege our families as best we can, and that applies to rich and poor alike. In the case of dynasties, wealthy individuals strive to maintain the status quo because that is the best way for them to consolidate and pass on their exclusive positions. The problem is that dynasties ensure that influence and power are concentrated in the hands of an elite minority – and that works against the best interests of everyone else.  

The ever-increasing wealth and resources gap between the rich minority and everyone else in developed nations translates to lower educational outcomes – once the key to upward mobility – and poorer health outcomes for the majority who are, increasingly, locked out of the privileged elite. Lessons from the past, warn us that entrenched structural inequality is a recipe for civil unrest, such as we have recently seen in the US and France, perhaps, and provides fertile ground for the seeds of fascism. 

So, what can be done to restore the fair go? Is there a peaceful way to redistribute wealth to achieve greater opportunities and a better life for all? In Australia, we could make a great start with real tax reform that removes tax minimisation schemes and loopholes and ensures the big end of town pays its way.

If that sounds unrealistic, what are the alternatives?

Stories that matter
Emails delivered daily
Sign up