Political dynasties abound – should that give hope to business families? No

Justin Trudeau, the newly elected prime minister of Canada, with his wife. Photo by Jemal Countess/Getty Images Entertainment / Getty Images
Justin Trudeau, the newly elected prime minister of Canada, with his wife. Photo by Jemal Countess/Getty Images Entertainment / Getty Images

The election of Justin Trudeau as Canada’s new prime minister is a reminder that political dynasties are alive and well. But don’t expect his coming to power to translate into empathy for Canadian business families. In fact, the best business families can hope for is that dynastic politicians don’t meddle with their companies at all, because business dynasties share few of the same values as their political counterparts.

Trudeau is of course the son of Pierre Trudeau, arguably the most famous prime minister Canada has ever had. His election shows that in the 21st century political dynasties appear to be alive and well, thriving just as much in liberal democracies as in authoritarian political systems.  Hillary Clinton, wife of Bill, the 42nd president of the US, is running for her husband’s old job, so is Jeb Bush, the son and brother to two US presidents. Indeed, the US gave us probably the most famous political dynasty of the last 100 years – the Kennedy family. Across the Atlantic, France has the Le Pens and the UK, the Benns and Kinnocks.

Park Geun-hye, the president of South Korea, is the daughter of a former president, Japan’s prime minister is from a prominent political family, as are the leaders of the Philippines, Bangladesh, and Kenya. North Korea is the world’s specialist in political dynasties and many of the “Stans” in Central Asia are ruled by families. A quick search on Wikipedia will reveal just how many political dynasties there are today.

Shouldn’t that be good for business families? After all the two groups come from shared experiences. Unfortunately, the short answer to that is no – and here’s why. In liberal democracies, dynastic politicians are no different from any other politician in that they are driven by the short-term electoral cycle. For them, it’s all about staying in power for those years and being re-elected when the next cycle comes along. That encourages them to think short term when formulating policy – and few of those policies are likely to be sympathetic to the long-term strategies of family businesses.

In fact, dynastic politicians, whether of the right or the left, have never stood up for family business dynasties, despite their shared experiences. That’s not about to change with another Clinton in office, nor with another Trudeau. Politicians with political relatives in liberal democracies will often play down their dynastic backgrounds, fearing it could be viewed as undemocratic by the electorate. So, why stand up for family businesses if it could expose their own undemocratic backgrounds, whether real, or perceived?

In authoritarian regimes, where the rule of law is at best weak, family businesses are even less understood. Here they face the constant threat of being taken over, or put out of business altogether by the state for whatever political imperative. Even in liberal democracies existential threats exists through draconian taxation policies and/or nationalisation.

Given these reasons, Canadian family businesses aren’t getting excited about Trudeau’s premiership, nor are American ones with the prospect of Hillary as the next president. That’s because family dynasties in politics and business appear to share none of the same priorities despite their shared experiences.

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