Spoiler alert: this blog post isn’t about Honest Abe, George Washington, or another American statesman who is widely revered as a beacon of moral character. Instead, the most honest politician in America’s history is probably someone you’ve never heard of: George Washington Plunkitt, a state legislator from New York for three decades in the late 19th Century.
What makes Plunkitt unique is that he is one of very few politicians to publicly detail the behind-the-scenes maneuvering of political strategy and bending of the political process to benefit him and his friends. Plunkitt was a member of the Tammany Hall machine in New York City, a group of men whose main purpose was seizing political power, profiting from it, and never letting go. Unlike nearly all other politicians in the history of democracy, Plunkitt himself publicly spoke on how he used the powers of government to get ahead in life.
Bemoaning the fact that his compatriots had been accused of “growin’ rich on graft” (using public money to further oneself), Plunkitt insisted there were two types of graft: honest and dishonest. This is how he defined honest graft:
“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 goin’ to lay out a new park at a certain place…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. Ain’t it perfectly honest…to make a profit on my investment and foresight?”
Regardless of political party, the above paragraph should make anyone shudder with distaste. Plunkitt is obviously playing the system for personal gain and cashing in on his political connections. This is identical to today’s crime of insider trading—but with taxpayer dollars.
Plunkitt also used his position of power to hand out political gifts to his friends. He defends this action by comparing it to giving something to a friend in private life and shamelessly inquires, “Why shouldn’t I do the same in public life?” Anyone with an ounce of morality will reply that the difference is that this money is not his to gift but the public’s. Plunkitt doesn’t own the money; taxpayers do.
Plunkitt’s words clearly display the truth of Public Choice Theory. This idea posits that politicians, just like every other human being, are self-interested and will undertake actions that benefit them. This is why organizations like the Mackinac Center dedicate themselves to keep an eye on politicians and bring their sweetheart deals out into the open. Politically connected businesses shouldn’t get extra benefits just because they have a man on the inside.
Plunkitt also demonstrates why a democratic government will often expand or create new programs but rarely cut them. “Don’t you know Tammany gains ten votes for every one it lost by salary raisin’?” he scoffs. It’s quite easy to make friends by throwing money at them. According to Plunkitt, using public funds to ensure reelection in this way is another type of honest graft.
Plunkitt allowed William Riordan, a newspaperman, to observe and record his methods for staying in office. In a single day, Plunkitt would normally engage in over a dozen seemingly altruistic acts: paying bail for a local saloon-keeper, covering rent for poor families, attending funerals and weddings, purchasing ice cream for children, and more.
Plunkitt considered fires great opportunities to collect votes because come election time, the victims would remember that he was the first one to reach them with offers of help. Riordan notes that Plunkitt “has learned to reach the hearts of the great mass of voters. He does not bother about reaching their heads.”
Not much has changed. In this modern age, we need to mind our heads as well as our hearts. Despite what benefits and shiny programs a politician offers, we should always inquire into the cost. Politicians are not morally perfect. Tools like the Mackinac Center’s app Votespotter bring keeping your legislators accountable into the 21st century.
Now, it may seem that this blog post is railing against politicians and calling them everything short of demons. That is incorrect. Just as being elected does not transform an imperfect human being into an angel, elected office does not transmogrify someone into a cold, calculating dictator.
Rather, voters need to be aware that every single person on Earth (including themselves!) does things that advance their personal interests. This truth applies to politicians too. As Riordan described Plunkitt, “A philanthropist? Not at all. He is playing politics.” Don’t confuse politicians’ kindness for selfless altruism.
Quotes are taken from The American Heritage Reader, a collection of original American documents edited by the Hillsdale College History Faculty and published by Hillsdale College Press. ©2011
Punctuation and spelling is the same as the original document.