The Politics of “Jobbery”: 1883-2009

One of the joys of college teaching is leading a seminar on intellectual thought. The students who sign up for this reading-intensive course earn their grade through hard work, vigorous discussion, and writing. They are the better class of student at universities that accept any one with a government-guaranteed student loan.

Currently, I am teaching a course listed as “The Conservative View in U.S. History.” In fact, it deals with classical liberal thought and conservatism. This week, we are up to the late 19th century and William Graham Sumner’s “Forgotten Man” essay is assigned reading. When war breaks out, and people oppose it, I often refer them to Sumner’s “Conquest of the United States by Spain” (also assigned this week). But a section of “The Forgotten Man” reminds me so much of today’s entitlement-“no risk”-bailout culture. See below.

Thanks go to the Liberty Fund for posting this essay:

“. . . I have shown how, in time past, the history of states has been a history of selfishness, cupidity, and robbery, and I have affirmed that now and always the problems of government are how to deal with these same vices of human nature. People are always prone to believe that there is something metaphysical and sentimental about civil affairs, but there is not. Civil institutions are constructed to protect, either directly or indirectly, the property of men and the honor of women against the vices and passions of human nature. In our day and country, the problem presents new phases, but it is there just the same as it ever was, and the problem is only the more difficult for us because of its new phase which prevents us from recognizing it. In fact, our people are raving and struggling against it in a kind of blind way, not yet having come to recognize it. More than half of their blows, at present, are misdirected and fail of their object, but they will be aimed better by and by. There is a great deal of clamor about watering stocks and the power of combined capital, which is not very intelligent or well-directed. The evil and abuse which people are groping after in all these denunciations is jobbery.”

“By jobbery I mean the constantly apparent effort to win wealth, not by honest and independent production, but by some sort of a scheme for extorting other people’s product from them. A large part of our legislation consists in making a job for somebody. Public buildings are jobs, not always, but in most cases. The buildings are not needed at all or are costly far beyond what is useful or even decently luxurious. Internal improvements are jobs. They are carried out, not because they are needed in themselves, but because they will serve the turn of some private interest, often incidentally that of the very legislators who pass the appropriations for them. A man who wants a farm, instead of going out where there is plenty of land available for it, goes down under the Mississippi River to make a farm, and then wants his fellow-citizens to be taxed to dyke the river so as to keep it off his farm. The Californian hydraulic miners have washed the gold out of the hillsides and have washed the dirt down into the valleys to the ruin of the rivers and the farms. They want the federal government to remove this dirt at the national expense. The silver miners, finding that their product is losing value in the market, get the government to go into the market as a great buyer in the hope of sustaining the price. The national government is called upon to buy or hire unsalable ships; to dig canals which will not pay; to educate illiterates in the states which have not done their duty at the expense of the states which have done their duty as to education; to buy up telegraphs which no longer pay; and to provide the capital for enterprises of which private individuals are to win the profits. We are called upon to squander twenty millions on swamps and creeks; from twenty to sixty-six millions on the Mississippi River; one hundred millions in pensions – and there is now a demand for another hundred million beyond that. This is the great plan of all living on each other. The pensions in England used to be given to aristocrats who had political power, in order to corrupt them. Here the pensions are given to the great democratic mass who have the political power, in order to corrupt them. . . .”

Dateline: 1883. Here we are one hundred and twenty-six years later, and none the wiser.

“Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose”—Alphonse Karr

Jonathan Bean is a Research Fellow at the Independent Institute and editor of the Independent book, Race & Liberty in America: The Essential Reader.
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