William Graham Sumner on the political corruption which is “jobbery” (1884)

William Graham Sumner

Found in War and Other Essays

The American clergyman and sociologist William Graham Sumner (1840-1910) thought that “jobbery”, the attempt to gain wealth from others by extortion by means of the government instead of honest labor, was rampant in plutocratic America:

Jobbery is any scheme which aims to gain, not by the legitimate fruits of industry and enterprise, but by extorting from somebody a part of his product under guise of some pretended industrial undertaking. Of course it is only a modification when the undertaking in question has some legitimate character, but the occasion is used to graft upon it devices for obtaining what has not been earned. Jobbery is the vice of plutocracy, and it is the especial form under which plutocracy corrupts a democratic and republican form of government. The United States is deeply afflicted with it, and the problem of civil liberty here is to conquer it.

Sumner thought that America in the late 19th century was controlled by a class of wealthy plutocrats who used their money and political influence to gain benefits at the expense of the ordinary consumer and taxpayer, whom he called “the forgotten man” and “the forgotten woman.” He wrote two important essays on them in which he describes their patience and their financial suffering. At the high end of this system of “plundering” the public purse for private gain were the protectionists and the large contractors who got contracts from the government for public works. At the lower end there was a what he called “jobbery”, by which he meant the widespread practice of trying to get tax payer funded jobs in the government administration (through nepotism or through the political party machine), or lobbying the government to get special favors such as people demanding government pensions, farmers demanding the government pay for losses from floods, or gold miners who want the government to pay to clean up the rivers they foul. Sumner saw all of this activity producing waste on a large scale. Some gained of course, such as “the clamorous interests, the importunate petitioners, the plausible schemers”, but this was at the expense of the long suffering “Forgotten Man” who was an “honest, sober, industrious citizen, unknown outside his little circle, paying his debts and his taxes, supporting the church and the school, reading his party newspaper, and cheering for his pet politician.”