Bob the Builder, and the Neo-Puritan Deal

It’s story time, and our protagonist’s name is Robert Moses. He’s responsible for building most of the highways and bridges around NYC, as well as much of the parkway infrastructure in New York State.

Let’s say a new highway was getting built. What would Moses’s job be?

Moses was the guy who oversaw the design work to propose the highway, lobbied the legislature and governor for funds, got the budget passed, oversaw the construction work, and collected any revenues afterwards if there were tolls. He was very clearly the but-for guy.

He personally accumulated massive amounts of political power and funding and responsibility, and used it to force aside political opposition to get things built when no on else could. He built his own fiefdom within the New York State government, that was in practice unassailable by mayors and governors, made himself the natural coordination point for getting funding for things, and leveraged his power to get more power etc, which he used to build more things, setting off several related positive feedback loops:

Robert Moses had credibility because he got credit for everything that got built. Therefore, he could shape the narrative to assign him the lion’s share of the credit for future projects, less he use his moral authority to discredit naysayers.

Robert Moses had power because he controlled ongoing funding sources and political offices overseeing most government construction. Therefore, he could use this as leverage to acquire control over new offices and projects, lest he freeze decisionmakers out of existing construction.

The man was a power-mad maniac. But the interesting thing is how his public persona - and a lot of how he got his initial endowment of power, credibility, and consistent media support - was entirely built around a personal brand of meritocracy, the impression that he was a disinterested, technocratic public servant, above the politics of pull.

Robert Caro found this interesting enough to biograph, and I think he's a good case-study of how narratives of public service, meritocracy, and objectivity can be a sort of elitist self-dealing.

This is a cleaned-up Discord chat transcript from a few years ago. I have probably changed my mind about some of the things below, but don't feel like revising this artifact. I was also going entirely from memory, so I may have gotten lots of details a bit off! Happy to correct any errors anyone points out, and answer reasonable questions like "what do you mean by X" for nonstandard terminology. Happy to also engage with more substantive criticism, but I'm not necessarily going to stand by everything below.

If you want to go straight to the sources, read Robert Caro's The Power Broker and David Hackett Fischer's Albion's Seed.

Prologue: Harvard

Caro starts with Moses’s time at Harvard, which is a microcosm of the whole thing. Moses was the son of wealthy German Jews, and eager to ingratiate himself at Harvard (which, let's remember, started as a literal Puritan seminary, so it’s where you go to acquire high cultural affinity with a sort of meritocratic elite legitimized through “qualifications and character” - education and highfalutin self-abnegating ideals).

How did he do this?

First, he advocated for a sort of "good government" reform within student government. I vaguely recall he wrote for and maybe edited a student newspaper? I’m summarizing from memory, if you want the facts, read the book, it’s good. Anyway, he was known for making impassioned persuasive speeches promoting integrity and meritocracy, arguing that class government positions should go to the people of the greatest merit, and not on the basis of fraternity association.

Plenty of people were actually persuaded by this, and touched by the impassioned appeal to their higher selves. Meanwhile, Moses was running around making himself useful to student organizations, doing the hustle work of raising funds from donors, etc. So, when people were persuaded that student government positions should be awarded based on merit, who do you think was the person of merit?

Robert Moses!

That's a kind of harmless and funny example of merit as self-dealing, but an interesting contrast to the other story Caro recounts.

In order to concentrate indispensable power under himself, Moses maneuvered to get all the minor collegiate sports rolled into a single association to pool fundraising efforts.And, of course, this made it easy to assume leadership of said organization. But, then, there was a problem.

The swim team (one of the “minor sports” teams, which Moses was a member of in good standing) owed much of its support to a particular alumnus. The president wasn’t sure if they could get money from the guy for a general "minor collegiate sports" organization, since he was specifically interested in the swim team, and not interested in funding other athletic endeavors.

So, Moses said - I'll go down to New York and talk to him, and I just won't bother to tell him that the check's for the bigger organization.

The swim team president, was shocked. Not only was this dishonesty unbecoming a Harvard man, but Moses’s entire brand was based on appeals to principle. The president refused to sanction this.

So, Moses threatened to resign the team unless they let him do this.

They let him resign.

So, right from the start, he's a kind of surprising amalgam of a "good government" / integrity brand, and a guy who is in practice, when it concerns his interest, happy to misleading people for the advancement of his interests. Importantly, there is never the prospect of Moses pocketing a dime from this - the corruption is always a necessary expediency For the Good of the Cause.

So that's Young Robert Moses in a nutshell: gifted, talented, self-righteous, ruthless, willing to trade on the brand of “Principled,” but not actually principled. He positions himself to be maximally legibly meritorious, and then argues high-mindedly, and visibly impractically (this will become clearer in the next episode), for promoting people based on merit. This just so happens to be his kind of person.

He takes a detour to Oxford during WWI, which isn't all that important for understanding what happens next, so I'll skip it for now. But we’ll come back to that later.

In the meantime, I’m going to make an additional claim that will be supported later on: A strategy like Moses's has a natural lifecycle. Initially, accumulate credibility via that sort of high-mindedness. Later, cash it in for direct power, and squash people who point out your hypocrisy. This hypothesis is in direct competition with “power corrupts.” The hypothesis is that there exists a fake-integrity strategy that efficiently targets power in certain systems, of which Robert Moses is a paradigmatic case, that was actually self-dealing from the beginning.

Part 1: Accumulate credibility

Civil service reform

Now a fully qualified member of the Anglo elite - with degrees from both Harvard and Oxford - Moses joins New York City’s civil service bureaucracy in some sort of junior unpaid intern capacity, living on checks from mom.

He’s visibly impatient about inefficiency, and networks his way into a position with New York’s reformist faction. They're pre-Johnson Republicans of the progressive variety. (The Civil Rights Act precipitated a political realignment where good-government progressive types ended up in the Democratic party.)

A bit of context: This is the Tammany Hall era in New York; most of the time, the city government is in the hands of the Democratic patronage system. The Democratic party awards civil service jobs as patronage, to buy constituents’ loyalty. There are a lot of other favors the government can do. Basically, Democratic voters relate to Tammany Hall (Democratic headquarters), not to the government directly. Tammany Hall (the location of the Democratic party headquarters) takes care of you, and you’re expected to take care of Tammany at the ballot box.

 Every several elections, the voters get fed up and elect a reformer as mayor, who promptly fails against Tammany's entrenched power.

The reformers can tell that Moses is smart, and get him to lay out a civil service reform proposal. The proposal is for competitive examinations, explicit objective tests to make sure people are qualified for their jobs.

The mayor's behind it. The voters are behind the mayor. What could go wrong?

Robert Moses!

Moses is the spokesman for his own reform - he’s got to promote it. He goes around giving speeches, but he is incredibly pompous, and antagonizes people with his arrogance; audiences typically walk away from a Moses speech disillusioned with or even angry at him.

The proposal is a bit harsh, and there are some compromises he might have made to appease civil servants.

He refuses to accept even slight compromises that might make the bill more feasible. “Qualifications" basically always include formal education even in cases where that's obviously not necessary, which favors people of Moses's social class, and is genuinely unfair to some people with patronage jobs, who are actually able and willing to do them. There are also "character" tests that are sort of vaguely about whether you're the right sort of person, in ways that likewise favor people who went to elite finishing schools like Harvard and Oxford.

These would have been genuinely good points to compromise on, and could have made the proposal more meritocratic, but Robert Moses is not a man to back down. Perversely, while this kills the proposal’s chances of success, it wins him the respect of the Reformers as a man of principle (maybe too principled for his own good).

Ultimately, Moses makes the proposal so unpopular (in a city that just overwhelmingly voted for a reformist mayor) that the mayor backs away from it, and it’s defeated in the city council. But meanwhile Moses is getting principledness cred for Never Backing Down - it's the principle of the thing, you see.

Friends in High Places

After this utter and apparently unmitigated catastrophe, Moses is out of the action for a while - until Al Smith runs for governor. Smith is a Democrat, got his started as a Tammany politician, followed the Tammany rules, but - the Democrats have never taken the statehouse, and they understand that to win the state, they need a gubernatorial candidate who's not obviously a corrupt Tammany politician.

So, they give him carte blanche to govern as a reformer, and turn down any Tammany requests he finds unconscionable. Fortuitously, Smith is actually a good guy, sincerely interested in governing well; he spent his time in the state legislature learning to understand the law so he could improve it, poring over law codes and draft bills while the other Tammany politicians were out drinking.

Smith actually wants to clean things up, but he doesn’t know who to turn to. He’s a hard worker, but he knows he needs expert advice. So he asks his chief political advisor, Belle Moskowitz. She’s one of the New York Reformers who broke ranks to support a Tammany Democrat, because she could see that he actually wanted to fix the broken system, despite his background. (One of her key political coups was, when he made his first speech to a women’s group, she advised him to give the exact same speech he’d give to men, rather than patronizing them with a special speech for the ladies. The speech was enthusiastically received.)

She remembers a bright young man of principle. Maybe a bit too principled for his own good, but surely under the wise guidance of a seasoned political operative like Mrs Moskowitz, he can be taught to work within the system. And who is this bright, principled young man?

Robert Moses!

She taps Moses to head a commission to draft a proposal to reform the whole New York state government.

He hires people, works them hard, gets good work out of them, runs out of money, does the rest of the work himself, takes credit for 100% of it, and ends up with a really good proposal to make the state bureaucracy intelligible and accountable.

Previous situation: nearly uncountable departments, no real budgeting, completely illegible assignment of responsibility, no real control by the governor or anyone else. New situation: 16 departments clearly accountable to their department heads, with final say over their departments’ budgets. Department heads are in turn directly accountable to the governor. Result: the governor can govern according to his favored policies, and the people know whom to credit or blame.

Smith is an actually skillful politician, and manages to eventually get this passed. He also delegates a bunch of bill-drafting to Moses, who is actually really smart and good at writing laws cleverly, finding loopholes to get things done, etc. So, Moses is sort of living up to his reputation as a good-government guy. so long as he has no actual power base except the governor's affinity.

Meanwhile, the governor and his chief political advisor are teaching Moses how the sausage gets made, and Moses is an enthusiastic student. Shockingly to his good-government friends, he idolizes Smith, the Tammany operator.

Eventually, Moses sees an avenue to independent power. He asks the governor to consolidate the various park organizations in the state under his control.

The governor trusts Moses and lets him draft the bill. He promotes it, sight-unseen. The good-government state representatives also trust him and basically vote for it sight-unseen (he doesn't give them the text until the last minute), and he persuades a bunch of people running private parks for the public good to donate their parks to his commission.

So, what does Robert Moses do with this extraordinary trust?

He carves out a special domain for himself, uniquely unaccountable to its nominal department head, giving the parks director near-dictatorial control over the parks commission despite window dressing otherwise, and giving him a longer term of tenure than the governor (6 years vs 2).

He could only be removed if the legislature passed a bill changing this, or the governor (six years in the future!) removed him. By that time he’d be firmly established as a champion of parks and the public interest, and no governor wanted to risk a fight with Robert Moses, Hero of the People.

Do you see the game that's being played now?

Everyone trusts Moses because he's impractically principled, brilliant, one of the good-government folks, picks fights with the right enemies. And then he uses this trust to maximize his own personal power

So, this is the end of phase 1, where Moses is mainly just buying credibility. He's cashed in some credibility for power now. In phase 2, Moses manages to leverage this into more moral credibility by picking on the right enemies - the Robber Barons - while also increasing his direct power.

Part 2: Positive feedback

Moses is now NY State Parks Commissioner. He builds some parks. They're good parks. They’re very, very good parks. Moses has good taste, he’s smart, he genuinely hires good people, and they say - decades afterwards, in retirement - that they did the best work of their lives under him.

But there’s more!

One thing Moses snuck into the bill granting him this fiefdom, was power to build parkways (highways between parks), and (ambiguously) the right to seize property from an unwilling seller.

This power was well-matched to an actual terrible problem New York City had at the time: New Yorkers were stuck in the city.

There were few parks in the city. There was no practical access to nice outdoor spaces. If people wanted to have a nice weekend outdoors - and increasingly people had cars and theoretically could afford to go places and had weekends off - the obvious place was Long Island.

There was just one problem with this: Long Islanders hated and feared New Yorkers. And they got to make their own local rules.

So, what ended up happening was New Yorkers would try to go for a weekend outing to one of the many outdoor spaces in Long Island, find themselves in bumper-to-bumper traffing on local roads, and be turned away from park after park "for locals only, ”and told there were parks somewhere farther on that they could go to.

New York City now has excellent parkways due to Robert Moses, but at this time, he was focused on parkways through Long Island. He didn’t have much power over the city itself, but he could help New Yorkers go somewhere nice outdoors, and that somewhere nice was going to be parks in Long Island.

Moses drove around Long Island scouting locations, figuring out what he could acquire openly, what he could acquire covertly, finding things that were technically already owned by the parks department, New York City, or the state - I don't remember which. Concurrently, he persuaded Governor Smith to make parks a campaign issue, and it turned out to be hugely popular, so he got millions in funding to build his planned network of parks and parkways.

Of course, he massively lowballed the cost estimates, but the important thing was to start building - and grab right-of-way for his parkways.

At some point during the process, some minor member of an old money family (easy to confuse with the immensely wealthy Robber Barons) didn't want to sell an easement Moses wanted, so he just ... confiscated the property, and called in the NY state police to seize the property under one of the ambiguous loopholes he'd set up. The guy challenged it in court, more for the principle of the thing than anything else - he figured, “if Robert Moses can force me out of my home for no reason, no one is safe” - but, the media didn't run with the story "Robert Moses drives a man out of his home with zero accountability.” They ran with the story "Millionaire hates parks, goes to court to stop them.”

The mildly rich guy wasn't very media savvy, and at some point the robber barons managed to offend the very plebeian Governor Smith by saying they didn't want "rabble" around. Smith responded, “That's me you're talking about!”

Anyhow, Moses had the state's lawyers, and even though the merits of the case were against him, he dragged it on long enough to exhaust his victim's funds.

It’s important to understand that the victory against the Long Island rich people was almost entirely a performance for the media. The guy who challenged Moses in court was able to halt construction of the Parkway for a bit, even though Moses eventually forced him to back down - Moses knows he can't afford indefinite fights. So, now that his reputation as a fighter for the people has been firmly established in the press, the next time he deals with the Robber Barons he basically makes whatever concessions they want to get the parkway built, adding miles, and many minutes of travel time, to swerve it around their lands, so they don’t have to see or hear the riffraff from the city.

Do ordinary people get the same consideration? Not from Robert Moses, People’s Hero!

Caro said he was outraged enough to write the book when he found about the following. A Moses parkway is planned to run over a small farmer’s field. The farmer asks that the highway be moved 400 feet so it runs over over the rocky, useless part of his field instead of the part where he grows crops instead. Moses refuses - the farmer isn't rich and powerful, so why should Robert Moses, People’s Hero, Champion of Parks, bend from his plan?

Here’s the picture at this point. Moses is actually highly sensitive to the desires of Power and Wealth, but the image of Moses picking a fight with the Robber Barons was sticky, so no one really thought of raising a public fuss, or imagined that he might have been making concessions to bigshots. The farmer himself thought this was just How Things Were, that no one was getting concessions, until decades later.

Meanwhile, the parkways were under construction, and the legislature could be hit up for more funds, because who wants to fund half a parkway and then leave it there? It would be too embarrassing. So they pay the extra money.

At the same time, Moses is managing the construction of Jones Beach, and developing this huge, lavish beach resort open to the public, and doing it in really good taste. He's got his own bureaucracy, and even though it's entrenched via ridiculously corrupt means, he's hiring the most talented people he can get and extracting actually good work from them, so when Jones Beach opens and the parkway reaches it, it's immediately full of vacationing middle-class New Yorkers and getting rave reviews.

Moses is now firmly positioned as the savior of New York, champion of parks. He makes genuinely good, beautiful parks and parkways, and along the way, he's also getting his fingers into more stuff, because now that he's got power, if New York City wants stuff built - and it does - Moses is the guy with the funds and the power. So, if you're mayor, you might as well give him some city parks jobs, and rewrite the laws to make this fully legal. He rebuilds the Central Park Zoo and also does a fantastic job.

OK, so what's phase 2, really? (It goes on for quite a while). Moses has acquired an independent power base, and uses it for a few things:

  1. Doing excellent work, which wins him credibility and he also seems to have a genuine affinity for.
  2. Picking the right fights, which burnishes his public image, and also lets him validate his ego by throwing his weight around.
  3. Using his power as leverage to extract more power, with cover against moralistic attacks provided by (1) and (2).

Part 3: Saturation

Moses manages to acquire so much power - and thus, responsibility - and thus, work - for himself that he doesn't have time to do it right anymore. The work becomes shoddy and cookie-cutter. But this doesn’t impair his reputation much, because basically everything getting built goes through Moses's hands. This means that anyone else in politics who wants credit for getting things built has to play nice with him.

Remember back in Harvard when Moses threatened to resign if he didn’t get his way? He still uses that trick, but now it works. Now, people actually treat him as indispensable. Moses uses the threat to resign all his city offices, against the Mayor of New York, many times. It works, every time. The mayor can't afford to be frozen out of ribbon-cutting ceremonies, or worse, actually have construction in the city stop (which is well within Moses’s power). The voters would not like that.

The threat works on governors too.

Moses is now running a massive patronage machine. He controls the state and city construction contracts, so he's responsible for lots of jobs, which mean unions, which mean a direct political power base. His counterparties can deliver or deny politicians much-needed campaign money - or votes.

Moses hires his second generation of staff, and these are part of his patronage machine, not the best and brightest

Moses also manages to become head of the Triborough Bridge Commission, which he not only leverages into justification for more parkways extending from the bridge, but -

Triborough issues bonds.

Bankers buy bonds.

Moses gets to price those bonds.

Do you think he prices them low, cutting his business partners a good deal? Indeed, he does.

You might think that running a blatantly corrupt patronage machine might damage Moses’s reputation. You would be wrong. Moses’s public image at this point is so good that his decisions are self-validating. If Moses wants it, that's ipso facto evidence that his enemies are the bad guys, against parks and goodness. His public image is still not just OK, not just good, but so good that anyone attacking him is obviously the bad guy. And he's not personally taking a financial profit from any of this - he's just running his personal empire as a state commission. Which gets to keep its records secret, because Moses thought ahead when writing the law allowing for it.

Moses starts throwing his weight around gratuitously, since no one can check him, everything gets done his way, locals in New York City don't get input into what their local park is like. Trust Bob to know what is best for everyone.

Oh, at some point during all of this, Franklin Delano Roosevelt gets in charge of some minor park, Moses gratuitously freezes him out because he doesn’t like other ambitious people being in charge of things anywhere near him, Roosevelt becomes governor and tries to contain Moses but eventually has to reappoint him to all his offices, Roosevent becomes President of the United States, tries to stop Moses from interfering with his pet project in New York City, and Moses publicly slaps him down.

It’s at this point in the story that it becomes abundantly clear - as though it weren’t already - that Robert Moses is not a nice man.

He's condescendingly benevolent towards middle-class folks, but really doesn't like poor people or black people, he wishes they would stay where they are and out of his parks. He says so, at work. He refuses to build parks in their neighborhoods. He keeps the public pools cold because he thinks black people don’t like that.

He despises mass transit and the people who use it. He builds hundreds of low overpasses over all his parkways so buses can't go through them, and refuses to build bridges in a way that allows for future mass transit capacity to be added. He starves the Long Island Railroad of funding to the point where there are occasional minor riots by riders - these are well-paid middle class people with nice houses and nice jobs, they just have to go through two hours of hell each day and it gets to them, heating and cooling breaks down on trains, most trains are late even after they stop counting trains that are late by less than five minutes.

But, somehow, he's still in control of the Official Narrative and his shady practices are opaque enough that no one feels like they can call him on it.

OK, so what's going on with this? Why is Moses shooting himself in the foot? Is there some purpose this serves?

Well, he was always an jerk who liked to throw his own weight around. But also, he's not getting punished for his minor, moderate, or somewhat major blunders.

Among the somewhat major miscalculations of this man who - the last time he had to make public speeches on a political issue - managed to antagonize the public enough to destroy any chance of his initially popular proposal’s passage, is that he thought it would be a good idea to run for Governor of New York. He insulted the other candidate (who, if he loses, will be his boss) with a smear campaign of gratuitous lies, and ran a campaign where he mostly hid from the public, but occasionally gave a speech where he basically yelled at the audience that he's a bigshot and they need to listen to how he knows what's best.

His humiliating electoral loss is a minor setback, and doesn’t much affect his reputation. He has to make huge blunders before it hurts him, and by then he's so in the habit of being Robert Moses, and so long removed from anyone who could really give him advice and be heard, that he just keeps doubling down since that always worked before.

There is no exit strategy. The sort of thing Robert Moses is has a midgame, but no real endgame. Power is for leveraging into more power, and Moses is by this point too badly overworked to have time for anything except keeping the system running. (Oh, and in a ludicrous waste of riverfront parkland, building the most beautiful urban parkway ever on the western shore of Manhattan. Did I mention that the man could do good work when he bothered?) He likes being in charge of things, he likes getting parks built, he likes building parkways, he likes being a bigshot, and he's doing all those things.

Part 4: Exhaustion

Ultimately, Moses messes with the wrong guy. But his downfall comes in waves.

First, he ruins his reputation with the press. The big thing is when he picks the wrong fight by deciding to turn a small park adjacent to Central Park into a parking lot for Tavern On the Green. Robert Moses, Champion of Parks, is cannibalizing New York City’s most beloved park to feed his patronage machine more construction jobs and amenities for the rich and well-connected.

But unlike the many other times Moses throws his weight around, this time the target happens to be the favorite park of some influential journalists and artists. They know how to play to the papers.  They make good theater of the parks commission bulldozing the trees in their park. They get their kids to pose with toy guns, “defending” their park against shamefaced policemen protecting the bulldozers. They get the New York Times - previously a staunch Moses partisan - to actually notice that he is a jerk, and not a good-government guy any more.

There are a few other things he does to break the magic, one of which was partly a forced move. Remember that part of Moses’s self-righteousness depended on coming from a wealthy family, and therefore never needing to enrich himself through his work.

His daughter needed expensive medical treatment, so he needed a real income. Despite the palatial amenities Moses got from the organizations he ran for work purposes, Moses’s personal income was that of a senior civil servant income - solidly upper-middle-class. Not, pay-for-your-daughter's-cancer-treatment-and-still-have-a-house level wealthy. He had scruples against directly using patronage for that, since it counted as Personal Gain, and not the Public Interest.

But he had friends, because That’s How The Game Is Played, and got himself appointed head of the World's Fair, a commercial job that paid well. (Putting Robert Moses in charge of more stuff is clearly the Public Interest.) But this was a job for which Moses was spectacularly ill-suited; it requires making nice to lots of people used to being the bigshot, including world powers, and mismanaged it pretty badly.

The big thing that finally knocked him out of power was that Nelson Rockefeller became governor of New York, and Rockefeller was also used to being the boss, and had an independent power base - a Rockefeller-sized inheritance is a pretty ample power base. Rockefeller also seems to have genuinely believed that NY needed to invest in public transit, and seen Moses as an impediment to that.

So, when Moses pulled the "I will resign from every office if you don't give me what I want” gambit, Rockefeller basically said, OK, sorry to hear that, I guess I'll have to make do without you. Then Moses felt it would be humiliating not to get ahead of the story, so he announced his resignation publicly, and that was that.

He was still nominally head of Triborough, I think, but in practice frozen out from all real power. So he kind of hung out being sad, writing a column on literary stuff for Newsday, and occasionally foreigners who respected his work came by and showed him a thing and he'd talk at them excitedly for hours about how they should do it.

Oh, and he also briefly got himself back into the action by proposing a clever way to do urban renewal without rendering people homeless, by building many housing projects in one place, moving the poor from each neighborhood slated for Renewal into a Project as it became available, and then rebuilding their neighborhood for richer people. This is the thing Jane Jacobs was complaining about when she wrote about him.

What is Robert Moses?

Moses seems to have been genuinely the sort of creature he was, as far as I can tell. It's just that while he wasn't intentionally a crook, he also wasn't actually a principled good-government idealist. He was some other, third thing.

What was that thing?

To understand Robert Moses, you need to understand the faction of America’s political landscape that legitimized him in the first place: the neo-Puritans.

The actual Puritans had - and understood themselves to have - a managerial class educated at seminaries, who legitimately ruled them in a sort of managerial technocracy.

But then - America!

Now they were in a political union with all these unruly types. But fortuitously, they were the ones who were formally trained in a bunch of stuff, so they kind of repackaged Harvard (which, remember, was originally the seminary for educating their theologian-managers) as a general-purpose elite University - the one Robert Moses attended, the one where there were still enough of the old kind that they could sometimes effectively coordinate to exclude Moses on account of his bad character.

The Puritan managerial caste ended up filling a managerial role in the US, both in government and in business, but now they had to market themselves somewhat to hold onto their power, and grab hold of the narrative to make sure it didn't throw them out.

What's left of the Puritans can't just say "you should let our ministers rule,” they have to insinuate or outright claim that they satisfy universal standards. What in an all-Puritans context could have just been "these are the people we all agree are supposed to be in charge” now has to be reframed as “important roles should be in the hands of qualified people,” where "qualified" is constructed to favor the sorts of people Puritans thought should be in charge. This amounts to a sort of mental projection of "we deserve to be in charge because we're qualified,” substituting the mood of moral legitimacy for simply meeting actual agreed-upon standards.

The problem with the neo-Puritan gang is not the idea that qualified people should be in charge. The problem is constructing the definition of “qualified” to favor a self-dealing gang.

Here's where Moses's time at Oxford becomes relevant. (Remember how I skipped over that at the beginning?)

At Oxford, his doctoral dissertation was about how the English civil service was better and more meritocratic than the American one. That of course you should have competitive examinations, but you should expect that - because let's be honest here - basically no one outside the upper classes will pass the test. People from colonized countries shouldn't expect to pass the test either, because they're not qualified. Class has already been assigned according to merit, it's already been sorted out.

I think that sort of self-serving narrative is part of how the neo-Puritans managed to hold onto any power at all, and occasionally fly high enough to take a Robert Moses under their wings. But the sort of blatantly self-validating elitism that Moses’ Oxford dissertation exemplified was done in America in a tone of abstemious self-righteousness that masked the self-dealing on the class level.

It's easy to see how someone who liked dominating people could imprint on that well enough to pass for a while. Robert Moses wanted to dominate people. He was also very smart, arrogant, and driven. At Harvard he ingratiated himself into and learned the mores of the neo-Puritans. Then he leveraged their approval into power, and betrayed them.

Could there have been a less arrogant Robert Moses, who hated the poor and oppressed less? I'm not sure that would have been an accessible configuration. The poor and oppressed are, after all, pretty much by definition, unqualified. 

I don't think a Moses-like agent who didn't buy into the "we are the right kind of people, rabble are unqualified for nice things" thing would have gotten as far as he did, since he'd have to deviate in one of two directions. If he bought into the ideology at face value, but was literal and serious about meritocracy, then he wouldn't have done Part 2, and therefore wouldn't have gotten anything built. NY State Government might have still been reformed, and that would have been good, he still would have done good things, but not the good things Robert Moses is famous for.

In the other direction, if he understood that the neo-Puritan ideology was culpably self-dealing and refused to buy into that, he would have had a harder time ingratiating himself with them, because he wouldn't have wanted so much to be one of them, so Part 1 wouldn't have worked out. You can't get Part 2 without Part 1.

Robert Moses wasn't the good guy or the bad guy. From a systems perspective, he was the only sort of agent by which shit could get built in that environment. That's the problem. Moses was just the thing that fit into the particular Robert Moses-shaped hole in the system. People who didn't want to become Robert Moses wouldn't have gotten that level of power anyway.

If Al Smith is the best reformer you can get, he's not gonna be smart enough to tell the real deal from someone like Moses, and he's going to mistake some of Moses' power-madness for competence, because Smith had to get to the top via some amount of corruption, that's how you "get things done", he just doesn't have the understanding to find a true idealist.

To be clear, the neo-Puritan reformers were not an unreasonable place to look. Granted, by the time Moses encountered them, they were already something of a self-dealing gang, since they were interfacing with a much larger democracy and trying to persuade it to construct "objective" standards that privileged their sort of person, and not actual Puritans governing themselves legitimately with explicit authority. But such arrangements can be symbiotic; there were most likely quite a few things that Harvard grads really are better qualified to administer.

Moses rode this wave up as high as he could, and then turned it into personal power. In the short run this meant doing interesting work. But acquiring personal power involved retooling for growth-for-its-own-sake, which eventually outlived its usefulness to anyone. The positive feedback process just became runaway growth. The world is big, he kept building parkways, the world was getting tiled with suburban automobile culture, and then the parkways kept getting clogged with cars, so he kept having to build more.

Meanwhile, the underlying arrangement between Puritans and the other Americans was unstable under conditions of democracy, since the Puritans’ need to maintain a cover story of professionalism denied them the capacity to coordinate overtly.

Puritans have to recognize other members of their coalition somehow, now that they're all pretending not to just be Puritans, so they end up recognizing each other partly through participation in the institutions they're still mostly in charge of (or used to be recently enough that the local standards still somewhat favor them), and partly through recognizing people with the right sort of moral mood. But these tacit modes of coordination make it harder to have standards, so you end up with your self-validating elite devoting an ever-increasing share of its optimizing power to simply staying in charge.

Strategies like the one Robert Moses follows are part of the process by which the actual Puritans (and their legitimate intellectual heirs) lose control of who's part of the gang.(I think the explosion of Wall Street as a force in the ‘80s probably also shifted the center of gravity a lot, but Moses was a slower but more inevitable corrosive force, before that.) Moses was genuinely talented, and his life outlook imprinted on something similar enough to the Puritan aesthetic that he actually did good work for a lot of his career, so it wasn’t a coincidence that he looked credible to the neo-Puritans, but in the end, he was merely a gifted mimic, and their trust was misplaced.

The thing is, even an imitation Puritan like Moses could actually, to some extent, deliver the goods, because they were selecting for that, especially among imitators who didn't have the advantage of full acculturation from youth and automatic acceptance. But, he used his acceptance to acquire his own fiefdom, not to pay it forward and contribute to the project of policing shared standards. This naturally leads to a loss of legitimacy for the gang, more felt than talked about. Members of the Puritan gang stopped being able to deliver the goods, and the rest of the people stopped believing their claims to authority.

And perhaps that’s why Donald J. Trump is the President of the United States.

Related: An open letter to open-minded progressives, Ra, Some thoughts on The Power Broker (Robert Caro), Effective Altruism is self-recommending

5 thoughts on “Bob the Builder, and the Neo-Puritan Deal

  1. Anonymous

    Thank you, this was great.

    “The problem is constructing the definition of “qualified” to favor a self-dealing gang.”

    And isn’t the other problem that none of us can think of a definition of “qualified” that does not favor the self-dealers?” Good grades, good performance on blindly graded tests, degrees, professionalism...have all been called biased. Not sure whether that represents a failure of imagination or the reality that upper-class people are smarter and more competent.

  2. philh

    To clarify:

    > So, Moses threatened to resign the team unless they let him do this.

    > They let him.

    Is this "they let him do this" or "they let him resign the team"? It reads to me like the former, but later on

    > Remember back in Harvard when Moses threatened to resign if he didn’t get his way? He still uses that trick, but now it works.

    suggests the latter.


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