If I had a dollar for every time the words “crony” and “cronyism” appear in print these days, well, I’d be flush. When I plugged those terms into Nexis, the database warned me it would take a while to tally the thousands of media stories from the past few years containing either expression.

As an epithet in political discourse, “cronyism” has skyrocketed in use over the past two decades. Occupy Wall Street lefties and Tea Party righties alike love the term. Just last week, The Hill carried an opinion piece decrying cronyism at the stodgy Postal Service, of all things.

Unfortunately, the more often the term is used, the more often it is misused. The term “crony” may have sprung from the ancient Greek word khronios, which roughly translates to ‘long-lasting.’ This would make sense, since the charge of cronyism denotes the dispensing of favors (jobs, contracts, etc.) to one’s longtime associates (family and friends). Cronyism carries with it the connotation that those on the receiving end of the charge are incompetent and reaping favors in exchange for kick-backs (e.g., campaign donations) to their government benefactors.

Charges of cronyism have been leveled in politics since the 1700s, but cronyism waned as an issue in American national politics after the late 19th century. That was when Congress began eliminating patronage jobs and mandated that government staff itself through unbiased civil servant tests and hiring procedures. The subsequent development of formal procedures for awarding government contracts further drove down insider dealing. (Anyone looking for a snooze-inducing read should download the Brobdingnagian Federal Acquisitions Regulation, which governs these transactions.)

For sure, government corruption does still occur. When a Cabinet secretary’s department awards a $300 million contract to a tiny company in his hometown, legislators, media and the public should ask if illicit favoritism is to blame.

But decrying “cronyism” at the U.S. Postal Service when it delivers parcels at a surprisingly low price is bogus. Does anyone really believe Postmaster General Megan Brennan and the CEOs of Amazon.com and big retailers are smoking stogies in backrooms and cutting deals to line their pockets? If anyone has photos of them strolling out of Morton’s steakhouse chortling evilly, please share them.

The United States, in fact, has a very honest government. It consistently ranks highly on metrics of government integrity. This should be no surprise to anyone who has confronted bureaucratic red tape, a good chunk of which aims to ensure government fairness and transparency in part by limiting officials’ discretion to dispense favors.

To be clear, it is perfectly in keeping with our system of government to grouse about bad or unfair policy. Indubitably, sometimes the government strikes a bad deal and bad contractors do win bidding contests. Objectionable or unfair results, however, are not synonymous with cronyism. And the more folks cry “cronyism” without evidence of actual corruption, the more they sound like the boy who cried wolf.


Image credit: Jonathan Weiss

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