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From Boss to Blob: what the State brings to the Party

In the old days, many U.S. cities were ruled by political machines. They were corrupt. But, by and large, they swept the streets and kept crime down. Because “Raise Dead” is a difficult spell to cast and there are limits to what “vote early, vote often” can do, the Machine often served as a vehicle to protect and advance minority groups in exchange for their mostly-genuine votes. Most famously this applied to the Irish but it was often also the case for African Americans – long before that term came into use, their potential votes meant that the Boss had an incentive to keep them on side too. For instance, this article about the Prendergast Machine in Kansas City says,

One of the defining aspects of “Boss” Thomas J. Pendergast’s “machine” politics was its approach to African American voters. During the early 20th century, at a time when black people were routinely excluded from the vote by Democratic regimes in most of the former slave South, Pendergast’s Democratic organization in Kansas City succeeded in part by attracting considerable black support. While such support was not unique to Kansas City—black Missourians never lost the vote in the same way or degree as their counterparts farther South—historians often point to the city as an example of early black political realignment toward a Northern Democratic Party based in urban, industrial centers and at increasing odds with its Southern wing over the issue of civil rights.

Far from beginning with “Boss Tom,” however, this approach to black voters had a long history – longer than some historians have recognized.

Boss Tom, Boss Tweed and their equivalents for other American cities of the Gilded Age were probably worse individuals than those who rule those cities now. They were more likely to have people beaten up or murdered – but less likely to allow conditions to arise in which people are regularly beaten up or murdered by crazy people in public spaces. As this New York Post article notes, killings in the New York City subway system since 2020 have skyrocketed to the highest level in 25 years, even amid plummeting ridership numbers. For the ordinary citizen, that is a change for the worse. You could stay out of the way of the Boss but the poor have no choice about using the streets or the subway.

What changed? The other day I posted about the way that the the rising number of drug addicts and mentally ill people living semi-permanently in public spaces challenges many libertarian beliefs about mental illness. I think a comment by Roué le Jour to that post nails it:

The state’s attitude to the homeless can be easily understood if you assume the state’s priority is to be a big as possible. The poor, the unemployed, the homeless and the criminal are a valuable resource for generating ever more government jobs. The last thing the state wants is for these client groups to become productive citizens.

Since the era of Machine politics, the State has expanded greatly, both in terms of the number of people employed by it and in terms of the welfare payments it gives out. I doubt that even now the numbers of vagrants street-dwellers are enough to make them a bloc worth being courted in their own right, particularly as they do not usually vote, but the number of state employees tending to them and everyone else is so large that it has burst the bonds of patronage. The days when it mattered that the Boss could give or withhold a specific post, when government jobs could be seen as an inert mass of sustenance to be carved up and distributed, are long past. The Blob has its own life now. It is no longer food. It hungers.

8 comments to From Boss to Blob: what the State brings to the Party

  • Stuart Noyes

    I think the state loves to support itself. I think it also loves to support big business who have far too close a relationship. I think we are like those humans in pods in the Matrix. Having the life sacked out of us.

    I have sympathy for those who have the least belongings and least to do with money. Some might consider them lazy or scroungers. I think they just want to be screwed over the least by the state.

  • John

    The Blob has its own life now. It is no longer food. It hungers.


    Four-day junior doctor strike set for April


    Nurses’ strike: New dates as union escalates dispute

  • William H. Stoddard

    Stuart: “Big business” is at best too narrow an explanation. Consider California’s AB 5, which effectively outlawed most sorts of freelance work, with narrow exceptions. This may benefit some businesses, but it harms others that rely on freelancers to get things done. On the other hand, it was proposed and advocated by Lorena Gonzalez, a member of the state assembly, but formerly a labor union representative, who has publicly dismissed the compaints of freelancers deprived of income by saying that they didn’t have “real” jobs—a real job apparently being one that is susceptible to being unionized. Labor unions also make money off of state policy—and indeed, they have to count as major beneficiaries of such policy. Let’s give them a share of the blame.

  • Paul Marks

    Milton Friedman pointed out that the old Chicago ruled by the “Machine” of boss Daley (the first Mayor Daley – who ruled from the 1950s to the 1970s) had taxation half of what it was in Civil Service ruled New York City.

    However, Chicago fell to Federal Government pressure to establish a Civil Service and is now ruled by the Public Sector unions, who have bled the city, pushing taxes up taxes (taxes up and up – the despicable Economist magazine would love that) and piling up vast debts – especially pension and benefit promises to city workers.

    Old Mayor Daley was not a good man – for example he helped rig the 1960 Presidential Election (most likely Mayor Daley justified the rigging of the election, to himself, on the grounds that a President Kennedy would establish Food Stamps for the poor, in line with Catholic social teaching, and President Kennedy did do that – “we are doing this to help the poor” is a standard justification for election rigging, and not just in the United States), but Mayor Daley was a lot better than the utter disaster that Chicago is becoming.

  • Paul Marks

    On crime – a lot of people refuse to see the cruel truth, even when it is admitted in front of them.

    For example, Old Mayor Daley did not understand that Saul Alinsky wanted to destroy Chicago, and “capitalist” America generally, – he no more understood Saul Alinsky than the philosopher Jacques Maritain or Pope Paul VI understood Saul Alinsky. When confronted with real-human-evil a lot of people (perhaps most) can not really grasp it.

    Encouraging crime and disorder is a way of undermining cities and the “capitalist” West in general – just as encouraging family breakdown (the so called “Social Revolution” from the 1960s onwards) and the general “Cloward and Piven” welfare dependency is a way of undermining the West, or what used to be the West.

    People waffle on about the “unintended consequences” of policy – but the consequences are not unintended. And telling, for example, the far left “Justice” authorities in New York City that their policies will lead to mass death and societal breakdown will do no good.

    It will do not good to tell them this because THEY ALREADY KNOW – they know that mass death and societal breakdown will be the consequences of their policies, that-is-what-they-want.

    They may tell themselves that they wish to destroy what is left of “capitalist” society so that a better society may rise from the ashes to take its place – but really they know that all there is going to be is ashes and dried blood (and that, deep down, is what they really want).

    As for the vast Corporations – they are run by “educated” managers filled with the same destructive beliefs as the government officials, and they are created and propped up by government regulations and endless government/banker funny money (Credit Money – most “money” now being just lights on computer screens that can be manipulated, or turned off, on the whims of the powerful).

    Capitalism without Capital – without Real Savings (the actual sacrifice of consumption) of cash money (commodity money) is not really capitalism – but there we are.

  • Four-day junior doctor strike set for April

    After the way government tried to use the coronavirus to destroy the economic conditions for people like me, I have zero sympathy for any government-sector worker.

  • I thought you might be amused by a post I did last year which references much the same thing, Honest Graft, and in particular my amusement at an excerpt from the old TV series, Alistair Cooke’s America, where he describes the sort of men who aided The Huddled Masses:

    For that there was a character who haunted the docks and covered the tenements. He’s a type who is not greatly admired by students of political science. But nonetheless he was the lifeline between the castaway and the new society. He was usually, in New York, a Jew or an Irishman, a native American. But his parents had been immigrants, and he knew well what were the primitive needs of people.

    I’m talking about the American politician.

    In exchange for your vote – and that was always well understood – he would get you a job. He’d get your son out of trouble. He would hound the landlord to repair the toilet or the bathtub. You had a plain daughter? He’d go to work on the marriage broker. In bad times he brought you coal and food. He filled out your tax forms. He knew when the baby was coming, and he got the doctor.

    And he did all these things through a chain of command that reached all the way up to the county leader or even to the mayor. And because he did them, he ran the cities, well or badly.

    Also amusing is when Cooke reads from the dairy of one of them, Mr Plunkitt, in a typical day.

    So yes, they were crooks, as much or perhaps more than the Bidens and the rest of the current Washington D.C. crowd.(Boss Tweed’s pals made “clerical errors” amounting $5.6 billion in today’s money)

    But the difference is captured in Cooke’s description of them; they actually did good for the ordinary voters in the real and direct ways that count in everyday life.

    By contrast the current crop do good entirely for themselves and for the wealthy and connected people they deal with via the mechanism of our giant governments. The voters may get the scraps of whatever vast spending bills are passed, but that’s about it; real trickle-down economics, and with almost no personal contact.

  • Knights Templar

    The end result is the middle and upper classes are fleeing and they take their money, education, businesses. charitable giving, capital and civic responsibility with them. This article studies IRS data and the results are stunning – very good for TX and FL and very bad for CA, NY and IL. Idaho is now leading the US in births on a per capita basis. Public pronouncements by Democrat leaders in these states clearly indicate they feel these people are traitors and want them to leave. By the time this all plays out we will have had a national divorce. The New York Times circa 2035 or whenever will finally write about this and say, “What happened?”