Re: Our Partisan Bureaucracy

David: One of the great things about being a Democrat is that you can switch positions 180 degrees and still make out like a bandit. America’s oldest criminal organization masquerading as a political party at first vehemently opposed the creation of the civil service before it eventually seduced it — and if you won’t take it from me, take it from one of New York City’s master crooks, the great George Washington Plunkitt, who was born in a shanty in what’s now Central Park and died worth a bloody fortune:

I have good reason for sayin’ that most of the Anarchists in this city today are men who ran up against civil service examinations. Isn’t it enough to make a man sour on his country when he wants to serve it and won’t be allowed unless he answers a lot of fool questions about the number of cubic inches of water in the Atlantic and the quality of sand in the Sahara desert? There was once a bright young man in my district who tackled one of these examinations. The next I heard of him he had settled down in Herr Most’s saloon smokin’ and drinkin’ beer and talkin’ socialism all day. Before that time he had never drank anything but whisky. I knew what was comm’ when a young Irishman drops whisky and takes to beer and long pipes in a German saloon. That young man is today one of the wildest Anarchists in town. And just to think! He might be a patriot but for that cussed civil service.

An Irishman giving up whisky for beer is truly a terrible thing, but it gets worse. The Tammany sachem, like other big chiefs of the Wigwam, was adamantly opposed to the professionalization of the bureaucracy, in part because it eliminated a significant portion of the Machine’s income in the form of payoffs from office seekers, and in part because he correctly saw that the civil service would eventually become what it is today, an unaccountable Permanent Government immune to normal political blandishments. 

When the people elected Tammany, they knew just what they were doin’. We didn’t put up any false pretenses. We didn’t go in for humbug civil service and all that rot. We stood as we have always stood, for reward – in’ the men that won the victory. They call that the spoils system. All right; Tammany is for the spoils system, and when we go in we fire every anti-Tammany man from office that can be fired under the law. It’s an elastic sort of law and you can bet it will be stretched to the limit. Of course the Republican State Civil Service Board will stand in the way of our local Civil Service Commission all it can; but say! – suppose we carry the State sometime, won’t we fire the upstate Board all right? Or we’ll make it work in harmony with the local board, and that means that Tammany will get everything in sight. I know that the civil service humbug is stuck into the constitution, too, but, as Tim Campbell said: What’s the constitution among friends?”

What indeed? But with that peculiar genius they have for always spotting the main chance, the Democrats have completely co-opted the “neutral” functionaries and bureaucrats by once again becoming their patrons: as the party of big government, the Democrats can, not unreasonably, count on a plethora of votes and financial contributions from the very folks whose livelihoods depend on the permanence, and expansion, of the “public servant” state. But that took a while. In the first decades of the last century, things looked quite different:

Say, the people’s voice is smothered by the cursed civil service law; it is the root of all evil in our government. You hear of this thing or that thing goin’ wrong in the nation, the State or the city. Look down beneath the surface and you can trace everything wrong to civil service. I have studied the subject and I know. The civil service humbug is underminin’ our institutions and if a halt ain’t called soon this great republic will tumble down like a Park Avenue house when they were buildin’ the subway, and on its ruins will rise another Russian government.

Right the first time, one is tempted to say. There’s still a lot of wit and wisdom in the old boyo. 


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