How spoils system would make city, county more responsive to voters

In the spoils system, the arrival of Hamilton County mayor Jim Coppinger, center, to office would have involved the ouster of most of the county's employees and installation of his own people. In 2013, staff  numbered 1,762. (Photo

In the spoils system, the arrival of Hamilton County mayor Jim Coppinger, center, to office would have involved the ouster of most of the county’s employees and installation of his own people. In 2013, county staff numbered 1,762. (Photo

By David Tulis

Why do you vote? Is it possible that when you vote you are agreeing to take part in a system in which your representative by election tinkers with the power of law, statute and regulation that oppress other people? To vote is to approve of the use of force in innumerable areas in which coercion serves no public purpose, only that of private actors who have co-opted parts of government for their own use.

Such is the argument of the voluntaryist, the man of principle who refuses the voting franchise, who declines to take part in a federal congressional election or a Chattanooga mayoral election.

The principled nonvoter joins an increasingly large crowd of people who care little or nothing for politics whom Pam Sohn mentions in a Sunday Times Free Press editorial about city councilman Chris Anderson’s pending recall. Out of extravagant carelessness, these people are indifferent to politics because it pervades every sphere of life, and has fallen, as if it were an exhausted idol.

This week Mayor Andy Berke proposed more ethics rules for city staffers, opening them to charges if they do anything that doesn’t reflect well on the city.

The civic-minded people of Chattanooga who lament poor voter turnout and hostility to government per se might want to consider a long-rejected method of politics, that of the spoils or patronage system. When an incumbent rascal is thrown out, all his people are thrown out, too. All his people from administrators, secretaries, traffic engineers and dog catchers get the boot.

The advent of the nation state brought an end to personal government of this kind. It established the professional civil servant or bureaucrat. His lineage is traced by Martin van Creveld in The Rise and Decline of the State, and in the West shows important development in the 1800s. Bureaucracy is entrenched and unchanging, though mayors, governors and presidents change. The permanent administrative class persists because rotation-in-office is rejected as a concept except for public servants subject to election. In Chattanooga and Hamilton County, that would be mayor, council members, commission members, judges and some administrators such as county clerk.

Rotation in office

Most people support the civil service system as rational, inevitable and superior to any other form of government. It is not subject to pique, personal whim, arbitrary or personal passions, not subject to ill-will or bad faith that occasional reveal themselves in the manner of a given political figure. People at the top change; but every staffer from the near-top on down is secure in his job, and can be fired only for cause, having a right to his job once he is hired.

So when Mr. Berke won election, most of the people who worked under Ron Littlefield remained on the job, protected by civil service law. “Opposition to civil service reform has almost invariably been denounced as merely the voice of corruption and of wicked political ‘machines,’” says Murray Rothbard in Bureaucracy and Civil Service in the United States. “And yet, and despite the fact that the laissez-faire good-government men of the late nineteenth century were fanatically devoted to it, no measure of government has been more destructive of liberty and minimal government than civil service reform. For no measure has entrenched bureaucracy more deeply.”

A government worker protected by civil service laws cannot be thrown out onto the street by someone else. Unless his budget is cut or his job deleted from the roster, he enjoys a lifetime appointment. Hence, bureaucracy becomes entrenched through those who specialize in its operation across the administration of various elected political heads. New blood is not allowed into government service. The slots are secured by a permanent and self-conscious caste quite apart from ordinary Joes like you and me. Being thrown out after an election and being replaced saved the bureaucracy’s people from losing their connection with commoners.

Right idea in President Jackson

Andrew Jackson, a states’ rights Jeffersonian president, instituted the spoils system to stave off the solidification of bureaucracy. A limited government libertarian who served from 1829 to 1837, Jackson wanted to prevent government from becoming “an engine for the support of the few at the expense of the many.”

In his first annual message, he said:

There are, perhaps, few men who can for any great length of time enjoy office and power without being more or less under the influence of feelings unfavorable to the faithful discharge of their public duties … [T]hey are apt to acquire a habit of looking with indifference upon the public interests and of tolerating conduct from which an unpracticed man would revolt. Office is considered a species of property, and government rather as a means of promoting individual interests than as an instrument created solely for the service of the people.

Yes, so when Mr. Berke takes office, he sweeps out the deadwood of the previous administration. When Gov. Bill Haslam takes over from Gov. Phil Bredesen, he sweeps out the more than 40,000 people on the state payroll (in 2013, state government had 41,785 employees). Rotation in office reflects the spirit of local economy. Government is not too professional. It’s not too efficient. Elections mean something — out with the old, in the the new. Parties would regain their strength. Bureaucracy would shrink from the rhythmic catharsis of the vote.

People might start voting again as if it mattered.

Sources: Murray  Rothbard, “Bureaucracy and the Civil Service in the United States,” published here at

Carl Watner runs the most important voluntaryist website.

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