The Limits of Political Patronage

Political patronage is one of the world’s oldest professions, but, like some other venerable practices, it needs to be kept within certain bounds of decency.

When politicians pay off friends, financial supporters, campaign workers, and other assorted hangers on by giving them government jobs, the distributors of such gifts need to keep in mind that certain positions should be reserved for people who actually know what they’re doing. In particular, any job where poor performance is likely to end up killing people ought to be staffed by someone who is qualified to do it, or who is at least competent enough to recognize that he isn’t qualified, so that he can surround himself with people who are.

As I outline in an article in this week’s New Republic, former FEMA director Mike Brown, who resigned on Monday, fit neither description. Nearly 15 years ago Brown abandoned a short and undistinguished legal career in his native Oklahoma and moved to Colorado, where for a decade he supervised judges at Arabian horse shows. In 2001 he resigned from that position under pressure, after members of the association that employed him accused him of mismanagement and possible impropriety.

At that point, Brown was a 47-year-old failed former lawyer who, in a world in which decisions were made wholly on merit, would have struggled to land another legal job. But needless to say that’s not the world we inhabit.

Mike Brown had a powerful friend: his college buddy Joe Allbaugh, who was one of George W. Bush’s key aides. When Bush became president he appointed Allbaugh to head FEMA, and within a couple of months Allbaugh had chosen Brown to be the agency’s top lawyer. A few months later Brown was promoted to deputy director, and the year after that President Bush nominated him to head the entire agency.

Aided by Senate negligence, and in particular that of Democratic committee chair Joe Lieberman, Brown sailed through the appointment process for one of the federal government’s two top disaster response positions, even though a glance at what was an obviously puffed up resume should have set off alarm bells.

All this illustrates what might be called the Mediocre Frat Boy Theory of Life. One of the things that makes America great is that, unlike in many other times and places, every good job isn’t automatically handed out to the brother of the best friend of the Duke’s former mistress. Yet incidents like the Brown fiasco remind us of the extent to which even the United States is far from a true meritocracy.

Everyone who has gone to college, whether that college was Central West Northeastern State or Yale, remembers the spoiled rich kids who lazed their way to gentlemen’s Cs while waiting to take their appointed positions in Daddy’s firm. (Indeed, a key factor in the otherwise inexplicable enthusiasm for affirmative action among so many privileged people may be their inside knowledge of how much of their own social privilege has been unearned).

The Mediocre Frat Boy Theory of Life predicts that a lot of incompetent people are going to be promoted to positions they have no business holding. And, as long as the spotlight doesn’t shine too brightly, they may well hold onto such positions for years and decades, protected by the same factors that put them into those jobs in the first place, while talented subordinates labor to compensate for the deadweight at the top.

For obvious reasons the Mediocre Frat Boy Theory of Life will seem least plausible to those who have benefited from it the most. President Bush, for instance, would probably dismiss it out of hand.

(Paul Campos is a law professor at the University of Colorado and can be reached at Paul.Campos(at)