Cronyism is a form of corruption in which political officials and businessmen show preference to friends when appointing people to positions of power, awarding contacts, and delegating tasks related to their office. Friends who benefit from cronyism are usually awarded a position of privilege regardless of their skill level, ability, or suitability for the position, which means that better choices may be passed over. A related concept, nepotism, involves showing preference to relatives.
The history of the word “crony” dates back to the 1600s, when students at Cambridge first started using it in reference to old friends, making a pun on the Greek khronios, which means “long-lasting.” Initially, the word was meant in a positive way, but by the 1800s, it had acquired more sinister connotations, with a crony being more of a partner in crime than a true friend. In the 1900s, “cronyism” in the sense of political corruption entered the English lexicon.
People engage in cronyism for a variety of reasons. Some politicians simply want to be surrounded by friends and people they know because they believe that their administrations may run more smoothly. Others may feel pressured to reward old friends, particularly those who participated in the campaign for a political position, or people who assisted with a meteoric rise in business. People in weak positions of power may use cronyism to surround themselves with loyal supporters who will not undermine their positions, ensuring that they hold power even if they do not deserve it.
Most people regard cronyism, like other forms of corruption, as detrimental. It runs contrary to the idea of a meritocracy, a system in which people are given chances and positions based on their performance and abilities, rather than their connections. Cronyism often results in a situation where the people in power are weak, and other forms of corruption may become widespread as a result.
Favoritism doesn't have to come just in the form of rewarding friends with political or industry positions. It can also be exercised when companies and governments need to award contracts for various jobs. In these cases, cronyism can actively cost shareholder or taxpayer money, as a contract may be awarded to someone who overbids. When cases of cronyism like this are uncovered, it can be grounds for a legal suit, unless proof can be provided to indicate that the contract was awarded fairly.