Dynamist Blog

Max Weber on Why American Workers Tolerated Corrupt Political Officials

In 1904, the great sociologist Max Weber toured the United States, doing research and making contacts that proved influential on his later work, particularly The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism. Sociologist Lawrence Scaff reconstructed the journey in his fascinating 2011 book Max Weber in America (summarized pretty well in this New Republic review by Alan Wolfe). I've never been a fan of The Protestant Ethic, but Scaff made me want to go back and read it again.

Reflecting a decade later on his conversations with skilled blue-collar workers in America, Weber wrote the following about why they tolerated the corrupt appointees of political machines rather than embracing the technocratic professionalism championed by educated reformers, including Weber.

Whenever I sat in company with such workers and said to them: “How can you let yourselves be governed by these people who are put in office without your consent and who naturally make as much money out of their office as possible...how can you let yourselves be governed by this corrupt association that is notorious for robbing you of hundreds of millions?”, I would occasionally receive the characteristic reply which I hope I may repeat, word for word and without adornment: “That doesn’t matter, there’s enough money there to be stolen and still enough left over for others to earn something—for us too. We spit on these ‘professionals,’ these officials. We despise them. But if the offices are filled by a trained, qualified class, such as you have in your country, it will be the officials who spit on us.” That was the decisive point for these people. They feared the emergence of the type of officialdom which already exists in Europe, an exclusive status group of university-educated officials with professional training.

They weren't wrong.

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