Quis Custodiet Quangones?

The other day I was reading, in what it matters not, about the vast expenditure of both the Ancien Régime in France and its supposedly more democratic British neighbour upon what were then called placemen. This word has long been in disuse. In the context of the Commons it used to mean Members bribed to be utterly servile to the government, lobby-fodder nonentities, but encountering it in France too suggests to me a wider usage. Sinecure is an equally obsolete word that is related: a fake job that puts you high on the public payroll, in reward for services rendered or expected. Or merely out of nepotism. The actual practice, however, is alive and well, particularly in Paris and Washington; it seems to be merely the term that is in eclipse.

I was reminded of Byzantium and the Sinosphere, both having elaborate hierarchies of bureaucratic titles. In Byzantium these could be awarded to foreign rulers or agents of influence, carrying not only prestige and presumably protection but also substantial salaries; I think the same was true of China as well. It seems indeed to be a constant of human governance, a particular form of patronage. I should not be surprised if Rameses and Hammurabi put people on palace supplies merely to keep them sweet.

Given that the particular words placemen and sinecure are pretty well forgotten, by what name do we now call this eternal practice? “Jobs for the Boys” was once an umbrella phrase, though one that I have not seen lately. At one point in the UK there was a lot of talk of Quangos. This word sounds Latin but isn’t; it was coined from Quasi-NGO, denoting various agencies that claimed to be non-governmental when convenient and took public funding when convenient. If that sounds derogatory, so be it; there was a time when the British public knew enough to despise these hybrids and distrust the closed circles that ran them. Jobs for the Ruperts, one might say. Well, perhaps some of them actually did useful work, as do a few “consultants” here and there. Governments often promised to prune this undergrowth, but since the governmental method of reducing bloat is generally to appoint additional personnel to report on bloat-reduction, nothing much ever came of this. Quango is another word I have not seen lately, probably because the principle of corrupt hybrids of public and private later got renamed New Public Management.

And then we have Consultants. Not the hospital title, nor yet the specialised engineer, but the growing practice whereby a public servant gives a contract to a consultancy company, which via a chain of offshore shell entities comes back to himself.

Another word we could use is Subsidies. To any objective economist, paying pals of the government to outcompete non-pals must fall under this rubric, but for some strange reason the word is used only of aid to the arts and new inventions, rather than powerful lobbies that got their drinking-straws into the state coffers a century ago or more. Subsidies to the oil industry, for example, are like Chesterton’s “mountain too large to be seen”, and fake export subsidies are surely as wasteful a form of patronage as ever were the sinecures of Rococo courtiers.

Well, then, if the previous popular British expression for useless but obedient legislators has fallen into disuse, might we not make a plea for the revival of “placemen”? And then let us note that the enormous drain on the public finances to pay for sinecures helped bankrupt the Ancien Régime and bring on the French Revolution.

Posted on June 1, 2020 at 11:44 by Hugo Grinebiter · Permalink
In: MONKEY BUSINESS, Robber Bands Great And Small

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