Saturday, January 28, 2012

Honest Graft: Some Wonderful Writings Excavated from the Era Before The Hegemony of the Cathedral

Whilst wandering throughout the Reactionary and fellow traveler spheres, I came across the phrase 'Honest Graft'.  Being somewhat intrigued, I found that it was attributed originally to one George Washington Plunkitt, of Tammany Hall, a Democrat from New York City back in the late 1800s and early 1900s.

Here's the reference:
 Plunkitt of Tammany Hall, by George Washington Plunkitt
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
(Google books and Project Gutenberg are both quite wonderful, making lots of historical research easier than it ever has been).

Now the big city 'machine' politics were the original adversaries of the Cathedral.  Plunkitt is a damnably astute fellow, largely free of hypocrisy, cant, or even self delusion.  He correctly identifies the civil service acts as the sin qua non of the Cathedral and attacks it with any stick that comes to hand.  He argues in defense of what he calls 'honest graft'.  I'll let Plunkitt speak for himself:

"EVERYBODY is talkin' these days about Tammany men growin' rich on graft, but nobody thinks of drawin' the distinction between honest graft and dishonest graft. There's all the difference in the world between the two. Yes, many of our men have grown rich in politics. I have myself. I've made a big fortune out of the game, and I'm gettin' richer every day, but I've not gone in for dishonest graft—blackmailin' gamblers, saloonkeepers, disorderly people, etc.—and neither has any of the men who have made big fortunes in politics.
There's an honest graft, and I'm an example of how it works. I might sum up the whole thing by sayin': "I seen my opportunities and I took 'em."
Just let me explain by examples. My party's in power in the city, and it's goin' to undertake a lot of public improvements. Well, I'm tipped off, say, that they're going to lay out a new park at a certain place.
I see my opportunity and I take it. I go to that place and I buy up all the land I can in the neighborhood. Then the board of this or that makes its plan public, and there is a rush to get my land, which nobody cared particular for before.
Ain't it perfectly honest to charge a good price and make a profit on my investment and foresight? Of course, it is. Well, that's honest graft.
Or supposin' it's a new bridge they're goin' to build. I get tipped off and I buy as much property as I can that has to be taken for approaches. I sell at my own price later on and drop some more money in the bank.
Wouldn't you? It's just like lookin' ahead in Wall Street or in the coffee or cotton market. It's honest graft, and I'm lookin' for it every day in the year. I will tell you frankly that I've got a good lot of it, too. "

Sound familiar?  It's like what Cathedral politicians do today, writ small, except they don't confine themselves to honest graft at all.  It's as if the Progressives acted to rid us of some minor fleas and ticks and instead brought in bona fide vampires---excepting that unlike self-respecting vampires of fiction, many of them drain blood well in excess of that needed for actual sustenance.

C.S. Lewis knew this well---here's him speaking about the Cathedral and its more honest theocratic cousins

Of all tyrannies a tyranny sincerely exercised for the good of its victim may be the most oppressive. It may be better to live under robber barons than under omnipotent moral busybodies. The robber baron’s cruelty may sometimes sleep, his cupidity may at some point be satiated, but those who torment us for our own good will torment us without end for they do so with the approval of their own conscience.

Here's the takeaway from the Reactionary point of view.  All systems of governance devised by Man are going to suck for someone, and they're all going to be 'suboptimal' from a cosmic point of view.  This is what I term the Fundamental Axiom of Reaction.  Tammany Hall had aspects of it which sucked, but nowhere near so hardcore as what followed it.  Could you see Plunkitt countenancing the ethnic cleansing of his constituents or the collapse of Order in New York City?  Were he and his half as oppressive as what has followed them?  

To stay in power, a government needs to be able to deliver the goods to its coalition.  That means graft if you're lucky and massive transfer programs and huge numbers of sinecures otherwise.  I'll contend that 'competent corruption' like Tammany hall is probably the most benign manifestation of such a ruling coalition we're likely to actually see in the real world.  Would that 'honest graft' be the worst corruption in the body politic.

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