The President, the Artist Son, and the Pursuit of Improper Influence

An interesting story came up last week, concerning Hunter Biden — president Joe Biden’s son. Hunter Biden is an artist, and it is anticipated that his work could sell for for hundreds of thousands of dollars, a price range no doubt not unrelated to his status as the president’s son. The ethical concern, of course, is related to that fact: the worry is that some may want to buy his art, potentially at shall we say ‘generous’ prices, in order to curry favour with Biden Junior in hopes of gaining favour with Biden Senior.

The interesting twist: White House officials have helped create a system that they hope will insulate both Bidens from influence, and thus allay any ethical concerns. The system basically includes a firewall such that Hunter Biden’s dealer will handle all bids and sales, and keep the relevant information to himself. If neither Biden knows who bought a given painting, then it’s hard for the buyer to have any influence…in principle. (The Washington Post covered the story here.)

Several points are worth making, here:

  1. Yes, there’s cause for concern, here. Many, many people want to influence President Biden (and anyone else with substantial power), and history teaches us that those people can get very creative and persistent in their attempts to do that sort of thing. (This is part of what makes it so hard to stamp out corruption in politics and international business — as soon as you put a law in place or build an internal compliance system to prevent improper influence, those seeking influence will invent innovative new ways to get around it. You can outlaw giving gifts to senators, but it’s harder to outlaw making donations to a senator’s best friend’s favourite charity. And so on.) As news articles have pointed out, the price of a painting is, well, subjective. So if a particular lobbyist outbids everyone else for a Hunter Biden painting, who’s to say that she doesn’t just really, really like that painting? It’s a hard thing to police. (Compare this to selling a house, where there will likely be a pretty clear market price for the property.)
  2. It’s a mistake to focus on Hunter Biden making money off his relationship with the President. Of course he’s going to. Offspring of presidents (and other powerful folks) have done that forever. It’s inevitable, and not unethical. Of course people want to do business with the son of a famous and powerful person. That’s human nature. As long as that’s all there is to it — no intention or attempt to buy or sell influence — it’s not unethical.
  3. Having a relative hold public office shouldn’t kill a person’s business opportunities. That is, Hunter Biden shouldn’t be punished for the fact that his dad is president. He shouldn’t be forbidden, for example, from selling his art — even though selling art in principle raises challenges. (Compare: the fact that I work at a university shouldn’t make my sister ineligible to applying for a job there — it just means that I can’t be on the hiring committee, and need to be kept strictly away from it.)
  4. We need more details about the system being put in place. What mechanisms are in place for ensuring secrecy? Hunter Biden won’t be told who bought a given painting, or for how much — but that’s a hard secret to keep, especially once the painting sitting in a lobbyist’s office or on the wall of a corporate board room. In principle, a buyer could buy the painting and have it sit in the dealer’s vault until later? And how long will the details be secret? For a year? For the duration of the Biden presidency? Longer? The details here matter.
  5. Sometimes these sorts of things, because they can’t be forbidden, need to be managed. That’s normal in many cases that involve influence, gift giving, or conflict of interest. And that’s what the White House is attempting to do — manage the situation to mitigate concers. Whether or not they can manage it effectively, adequately, remains to be seen.

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