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Rethinking ‘the Spoils System’

December 29, 2011

The first time I heard of ‘the Spoils System’ was in junior high school when I walked into my American History class and saw, “To the victor belong the spoils.”  Since this teacher also taught World History, I thought that the reference was to the Middle Ages and to jousting or knightly combat.  Imagine my surprise when he launched into a discussion of Andrew Jackson’s Presidency and his use of public offices as rewards for loyal supporters.

Fast forward a few decades and I am in civil service, a professional occupation whose staffing and functions were shaped by progressive Era thinking on scientific management and by contemporary legislative expression of the same in the Pendleton Act and its’ progeny throughout the United States.  The old ‘spoils system’ is now relegated to big city political machines, themselves much less fearsome than Tammany Hall, the archetype in American life of the kind (itself extinct since 1965 after 161 years of brokering power in New York).  The system works well enough to correct the abuses of the old ‘spoils system’ in that the proximate cause of the Pendleton Act, the assassination of President Garfield by a disgruntled office-seeker, as well as other abuses that range from incompetence (not un common in a system where loyalty trumps competency) to graft (including the so-called ‘honest graft’ of the likes of Plunkitt of Tammany Hall) and influence-peddling.  What it lacks, however, is responsiveness and loyalty to elected officials. (this is not intended to criticize anyone the author worked with; rather, it is intended as a general observation.)

The new system isolates government employees, below the very senior level, from politics.  That means that they are, or can be, at best, ‘philosopher kings’ performing their duties disinterestedly, without fear or favor.  At worst, however, they become the ‘faceless bureaucrats’ who are accountable to no one and who are part of what makes public administration, in the words on one author, “the splendid hate object” of American life.  This happens because of the very virtue claimed for the system by its’ Progressive designers, men like Robert Moses, originally an anti-Tammany reformer in New York before becoming the ‘master builder’ and ultimate insider, that the civil service system promotes only the best and brightest, as demonstrated by testing and education, without regard to political loyalty.

Such a system is essentially anti-democratic; those in office are there due to merit, not because they were placed there as a result of a popular election.  Under a civil service system, a citizen with a complaint about an action, a ruling or their treatment at the hands of an office-holder generally has to make use of internal department policies regarding appeal rights, complaint procedures or other artifacts of administrative law.  These procedures usually call upon the agency employing the official in question to act as all three branches of government:  As the executive branch, the agency administers the program; as the legislative branch, it writes the rules, including the grievance and complaint procedures, that govern administration of the program; as the judicial branch, their administrative law system hears grievances and complaints, and judges them, as well.

Under the ‘spoils system,’ the competency level of the office-holder, as measured by test scores and formal education, or even by experience in a particular field, may usually be less.  However, the office-holders, down to the lowliest clerk, owe their jobs to the party and the elected official who appointed them; their actions are thus subject to appeal to the office-holder and his party.  Citizens unsatisfied by their treatment have the option of voting out the office-holder, and in doing so, his appointees.  This makes every clerk, secretary, and administrator effectively as much an elected official as if they had themselves appeared on the ballot.  One other advantage accrues to the ‘spoils system’ which its’ civil service counterpart lacks:  Locality.  Party loyalty is built block by block, precinct by precinct, ward by ward, up to the level of the office in question.  A machine turns out supporters on Election day and confers favors upon them that help ensure their support.  (The archetypical Christmas turkey given to a poor immigrant family is one of the better-known examples of this kind of loyalty-building.)  Local officials come from the ranks of local party loyalists; thus, the election of a machine politician means that local government officials come from the neighborhood, the parish, the social network in which the citizen lives, and may well be known to him.  In a civil service system, no such intense localism, with all of the relationship networks that the latter implies, can exist, as merit, as the Progressives measure it, is not parochial.  A common citizen, without much money or influence, might expect to get a better hearing for her problem from a local official whom she knows than from one from out of town.

None of the above is meant to be an endorsement of, nor an apology for, the old ‘spoils system.’  Rather, what I am attempting to show that it has virtues of its’ own, that these offset some of the vices inherent in it, and that the modern civil service system that has largely supplanted it, is not necessarily better, while being arguably less democratic into the bargain.  In understanding politics, it is good to remember that human beings are often not rational, nor amenable to the light of sweet reason.  Systems that depend upon philosopher-kings (even in the guise of program managers, administrators and the like) often sound beautiful in theory, but their warts become apparent upon closer inspection.

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