The Social Science Encyclopedia

Authors: Kuper & Kuper
Summary: The entry defines patronage in about 550 words and distinguishes between its legal and illegal forms. Patronage is the power to provide jobs in the bureaucratic machinery at all levels. In a broader sense, patronage means the distribution of valued resources such as pensions, licenses, or public contracts. Patronage implies a relationship between a patron who has power and wants to retain it, and subordinate clients. The patron may need votes and political support, while the clients are in a position to provide these.
In some cases, patronage is legal. In the U.S., the President, governors and mayors have and are expected to exercise the power to reward their supporters, though there are limits on their use of this power. In most cases, however, political patronage is neither democratic nor functional, and is forbidden by legislation. The trouble is that under a system of patronage, political leaders have an incentive to create jobs for their supporters and to distribute public resources for essentially private purposes, rather than relying on administrative procedures and performance criteria.