The phenomenon of the spoils system: a new patrimonial state?

By Stefano Battini

In Italy, the spoils system, through repeated practice, has by now been assimilated. It is considered reasonably acceptable because it concerns the appointment of “a few” top positions and is justified by the trust-based foundation of the relationships to which it applies. However, it is paradoxical that, despite the significant attention given to the topic, there is a lack of in-depth analysis on both points. Firstly, no one has ever counted the positions subject to the spoils system before determining whether they are, effectively, many or few. Secondly, regarding the connection between the spoils system and the trust relationship, most analyses have predominantly conflated the two aspects without thoroughly examining the various manifestations of the spoils system in positive law, in order to derive commonalities and differences. There has been insufficient exploration of whether the spoils system is a cause or a consequence of an alleged trust relationship. In short, there is a scarcity of in-depth studies on the phenomenology of the spoils system: what it is, how and where it manifests, and how often. This essay aims to contribute to this end and reaches two conclusions. The first is that the positions affected are by no means only a few: when considering the various forms of the spoils system, even on a conservative estimate, they exceed the threshold of 20,000. The second is that the trust-based foundation of a position does not coincide with the spoils system, nor does it imply or justify it from a constitutional point of view. The spoils system operates on a distinct but connected level. It regulates the relationship between successive holders of the power to invest in a public office, establishing a personal connection between the current holder and the specific individual who appointed them. By virtue of this personalization of public administration, the spoils system is a reappearance, or perhaps a residue, of the patrimonial state in contemporary legal systems.