An extended version of the following essay will appear in the January 2003 issue of "Ideas on Liberty," the monthly journal of the Foundation for Economic Education.
People who think a few private entrepreneurs were the only “robber barons” in the 19th century should read a forgotten but important little book entitled “Plunkitt of Tammany Hall.” The first of many editions appeared in 1905 with the lengthy subtitle: “A Series of Very Plain Talks On Very Practical Politics, Delivered by ex-Senator George Washington Plunkitt, The Tammany Philosopher, From His Rostrum -The New York County Court House Bootblack Stand,” dutifully recorded and compiled by William L. Riordan of the New York Evening Post.
At a time when Michigan’s largest city, Detroit, was governed by essentially honest, efficient and reform-minded mayors like Hazen Pingree, some other American cities were run by scoundrels and charlatans like Plunkitt.
Plunkitt’s motto would undoubtedly be well-known if a captain of private industry had ever said it: “I seen my opportunities and I took ‘em!” He never did much of anything in the private sector except work briefly at a butcher shop after he quit school at the age of 11. He decided as a teenager to make politics his life’s work, and he never looked back. His vehicle was the notorious Tammany Hall, a vast political machine that kept a hold on power through a patronage-fed bureaucracy in the nation’s largest city, New York. Plunkitt was a district leader within the organization, and used its considerable connections to crawl his way up the political ladder.
The Tammany machine was frightening in its reach and corrupt to the core. It was a patronage juggernaut, at one time filling 12,000 municipal positions with its hand-picked, often incompetent, but always politically correct loyalists. It milked the taxpayers, took care of its own, and turned out the votes of its followers - living and dead - on election day. For decades, it thwarted reform efforts by buying the reformers. It did more than just rig the system; it co-opted the system.
Plunkitt himself became a millionaire at the game, and was proud of it. He crowed about how he made his money through “honest graft” - by which he meant being in the right place at the right time with the right inside information. Knowing, for example, that the city planned to announce a site for a new park, Plunkitt would buy up land in the area. Later he would sell it to the city at inflated prices. Or he would bid on city property and arrange to get it at dirt-cheap prices by offering jobs or money to the other bidders to drop out. Outright stealing from the city treasury, which Plunkitt regarded as “dishonest graft,” wasn’t necessary because political pull could earn you all the cash you want.
Politics doesn’t require a person to be book-smart, well-spoken or even possess good business sense, according to Plunkitt. It just requires that you know how to pick and reward your friends by padding the payroll with them. He once complained bitterly that civil service rules allowed a mere 55 people to get the same work done that 30-times that many were willing to do!
To Plunkitt, taking from some and giving to others was a key ingredient in the recipe for reelection. He saw nothing at all wrong with it, morally or otherwise. Using the political machine to bestow benefits and buy votes came quite naturally to him. “It’s philanthropy, but it’s politics too - mighty good politics,” he said. Referring to the assistance he passed out to victims of a fire in the city, he declared, “Who can tell how many votes one of these fires bring me? The poor are the most grateful people in the world, and, let me tell you, they have more friends in their neighborhoods than the rich have in theirs.” Plunkitt and his friends had quite a nice little welfare state going - the usual kind, in which the politicians get well off and everybody else pays the fare.
Tammany Hall was not the only big city political machine in the country in those days, but it was undoubtedly the biggest. It bilked citizens out of millions of dollars and used its political power to secure its place and put everybody else in theirs.
But of course, today’s politicians would never do such things.
(Lawrence W. Reed is president of the Mackinac Center for Public Policy, a research and educational institute headquartered in Midland, Mich. More information is available at www.mackinac.org. Permission to reprint in whole or in part is hereby granted, provided the author and his affiliation are cited.)