August 02, 2005

The Spoils of Governing

While sniffing around for something else, I came across a nifty passage in a paper entitled "US Social Policy in Comparative and Historical Perspective". Sounds pedantic, yes, but one bit jibes nicely with yesterday's Paul Krugman column, which argued that the Bush administration's modus operandi these days consists mainly of rewarding its friends rather than governing well. Now these sorts of "patronage-oriented" parties have existed in the United States for a long time, at least since the age of Jackson, maybe even earlier. Political scientists have had ample time to chart and graph their ways and habits. So here's what the authors of the paper have to say:
Another candidate to explain the relative underdevelopment of American social policy is the dominance of patronage-oriented political parties: hierarchical organizations that seek to win elections and maintain their organizations through individualized benefits to party workers and other supporters. The leaders of such patronage-oriented parties are concerned with the survival of the organization, which depends in turn on contesting and winning elections, using the spoils of office to reward party workers and contributors.

Mayhew (1986) claims that patronage-oriented parties avoid programmatic social policy because they find professional bureaucracies threatening: the kind of person attracted to patronage parties is unlikely to want to build programs; pro-spending groups like the labor movement cannot easily exercise influence in them; and these parties promote issue-less politics and a political culture of pessimism about government. Leaders of patronage-oriented parties have other important motives to oppose modern social spending programs (Amenta 1998). Social spending programs rarely provide the often remunerative opportunities provided by soliciting contracts for public business. Automatic social spending, moreover, potentially drains resources from programs that might be deployed in an individualistic way and implies higher taxes, reducing the ability of politicians to lower taxes in a selective way for contributors.

Finally, patronage-oriented political parties have reason to discourage social movements seeking to promote modern social spending policies. Shefter (1994) has argued that because democratic practices preceded state bureaucracies in America, political parties, especially in the Northeast and Midwest, oriented themselves toward patronage.

This line of argument has been borne out in some American research. In a study of the formative decades of US taxation policy at the state level, Mayhew (1986) finds that a measure of "traditional party organization" significantly lowers taxation efforts. Amenta & Poulsen (1996) find similarly that the measure reduces the generosity of means-tested assistance programs under the Social Security Act. Amenta & Halfmann (2000) find that patronage-oriented parties provided more support for social programs characterized by greater discretion in the provision of benefits.
That, by the way, was all written in 2001. But I'd say they pretty much predicted the Bush-era Republican party in its entirety, yeah? Anyway, I'd like to understand why patronage-oriented parties arise in the first place. I'm not convinced, as libertarians might argue, that big government per se leads to the patronage-oriented party system. The early years of the New Deal, after all, focused more on broad-based social programs rather than narrow patronage and, in fact, the Roosevelt administration often clashed with the patronage-oriented state governments in the Northeast, mostly over the administration of various New Deal projects. Meanwhile, in this paper, Edwin Amenta and Jane Poulsen note, somewhat cryptically: "Owing to the conditions of their creation, some political party systems, such as Italy's, became more concerned with patronage, and others, such as Germany's, with programs," citing a 1977 book. Guess I'll have to find the book.
-- Brad Plumer 3:08 AM || ||