(November 17, 1842 – November 19, 1924)served as an American politician in different capacities. Mostimportantly, he served as a member of the Tammany Hall, which was apolitical organization incorporated in the 1780’s based in New YorkCity. Among his major contributions as a politician was his code ofacceptable behaviors for politicians and persons serving in publicoffices. One core provision of his ideas on acceptable behavior amongleaders pertained to honest and dishonest graft as discussed byRiordan (1995) in his book “Plunkitt of Tammy hall”. Plunkittdeemed dishonest graft as unacceptable while he deemed honest graftas acceptable. However, in the modern legal world, Plunkitt’s ideaof honest graft is unacceptable as this paper further expounds.
Having served in many public offices, Plunkitt had encountered manyopportunities to amass wealth which he was proud of announce anddefend. He made it known that his self-interests came ahead of publicinterest. As a matter of fact, it was the entire class of Tammanypoliticians that were accused of enriching themselves through graft.Plunkitt felt that it was within reason and good moral behavior forpublic office holders to enrich themselves through opportunitiesavailable to them. To him, holding a public office was not only anopportunity to serve the people but also an opportunity to serveone’s self-interest first and then the public’s interest.
In serving his interest, Plunkitt talked of looking ahead and makinguse of his connections. To him, honest graft involved takingadvantage of one’s position in office. He revealed to the publicthat he had benefited from honest graft. He indicated that one way ofutilizing honest graft was speculating on government projects andbuying land in those areas before selling that land to the governmentor other agencies at a higher price later. To him, this wascompletely acceptable because he had not broken any law or infringedon the rights of others. He believed that operating within the basisof willing buyer and willing seller validated his actions. For thisreason, he was honest about it.
However, in modern times, the same actions are not morally acceptableand are illegal. Plunkitt’s actions amount to insider trading whichamounts to taking advantage of information accessible to anindividual courtesy of their position but the same information is notavailable in the public domain. The practice gives individual undueadvantage in the market and is likely to have far reaching negativeeffects in a market. In his case, Plunkitt relied on information heobtained about impending government project courtesy of his positionto buy land cheaply from unsuspecting buyers. He would later sellthat land to government and other agencies at higher prices therebyenriching himself. This is wrong on many different levels. Today,such practices are equivalent to insider trading which is punishablein a court of law.
In particular, the practice robs money from the government and fromthe people who pay taxes. As such, he does not seek to serve thegovernment or the public that employs him. If Plunkitt was to servegovernments’ interests, he would have targeted his efforts atensuring that the government and the public obtained public resourcesat the best prices in the market as opposed to the exorbitant priceshe was charging them. Therefore, he not only betrayed his employerbut also stole indirectly from the poor as the people had to pay himthrough their taxes. This therefore does not qualify as acceptablebehavior from both legal and moral perspectives.
One such moral and legal principal that outlaws honest graft isfiduciary duty. This principal requires that a person entrusted withanother person’s property or is given authority to make decisionson behalf of another does so only with the interest of the person whohas entrusted with that role. In this case, politicians includingPlunkitt were fiduciaries of the public and the government. They weremorally and legally bound to serve the interest of the public onlyand not their own. However, at that time, fiduciary duty was notprotected by law but was just a moral principle.
With time, there were calls for civil reforms to outlaw graft at thattime. It is at this time Plunkitt differentiated between honest graftand dishonest graft. To him, dishonest graft entailed only pursuingone’s own interest while honest graft entailed prioritizing one’sown interest before public interest. Thus, Plunkitt reacted byencouraging young men to follow his steps and enjoy honest graft. Hewas also opposed to civil service examinations mainly because theyyoung men could only get jobs after passing exams and also becausethe practice interfered with the politicians ability to offer civiljobs to supporters. Furthermore, Plunkitt called for strengthening ofpolitical offices as opposed to weakening them.
The case of Plunkitt as a politician as narrated by Riordan abovehighlights key issues that have faced governance and politics sincetime immemorial. Controlling the powers and influence of publicoffice holders has been some of the biggest challenges to governanceand public service. The case of Plunkitt thus highlights some of thekey issues that face governance and politics in modern times. Asmodern public offers and officers continue to be faced with thedilemma of prioritizing their interest, it is important to addressthis issue and learn from the experiences of Plunkitt in order toteach the best approach. Emphasizing on the need for politicians andpublic office holders to uphold fiduciary duty is a thus a key avenuethrough which the public can receive improved services fromgovernment and political bodies.
Riordan, William,Plunkitt of Tammy hall: A series of very plain talks on verypractical politics,
New York: PenguinPublishing, 1995, Print.