I was listening to a lecture on the politics of reconstruction when I encountered something that seemed quite quaint. By 1877, a lot of the country was tiring of reconstruction, and was ready to move on. Southern Democrats were taking the opportunity to re-take control of their states (through voter intimidation and outright murder) and, unfortunately, institute a race-based social system that would be enforced by government officials for almost a hundred years.
In this background, enter the contested Presidential election between Republican Hayes and Democrat Tilden. The electoral college vote turned on three close southern races that no one to this day probably knows who really won, particularly if one factors in the voter intimidation in those states. Never-the-less, Republicans found themselves in control of the vote counting and later the special committee to investigate and certify the election, and predictably Republican Hayes was certified the winner.
Southern Democrats were ticked off, and threatened to throw every wrench they could into seating the new government. So, in a back room compromise, Democrats exchanged agreement on accepting Hayes as President for agreement by Republicans to pull troops out of the South and effectively allow Southern Democrats leeway to do whatever they liked with blacks in the South.
This is all grossly simplified, but what caught my attention was one side-bargain of the deal. The Southern Democrats wanted a cabinet position under Hayes. What did they want? State, maybe War? No, they wanted the Postmaster position. The reason was that the Postmaster had by far the most patronage positions to award of any of the Cabinet positions, because it employed so many civil service positions.
Doesn't handing out a few jobs as rewards to your political supporters seem such a quaint form of political corruption today? Now, of course, with the power to tax or regulate whole industries out of business, or to step on one group of competitors in favor of another set in a high-stakes market, this seems so benign. I wish that were all we had to worry about today. Instead, we have a President who can, without any enabling legislation, take two of the largest corporations in American (GM and Chrysler), cancel the debts owed to their secured creditors, and then hand control of these companies to his strongest political supporters (the UAW) -- an act of political patronage that makes a joke of selling a few postmaster positions.
Update: Don Boudreaux discusses the rise of government-controlled fire fighting in the context of political patronage.