In a famous 2002 article in the Journal of Law, Economics, & Organization, Harvard scholars Edward Glaeser and Andrei Shleifer named the so-called “Curley Effect” after its prototype, James Michael Curley, who served four (non-consecutive) terms as mayor of Boston between 1914 and 1950. This phenomenon, the authors explain, is the strategy of “increasing the relative size of one’s political base through distortionary, wealth-reducing policies.” Forbes magazine puts it this way: “A politician or a political party can achieve long-term dominance by tipping the balance of votes in their direction through the implementation of policies that strangle and stifle economic growth. Counterintuitively, making a city poorer leads to political success for the engineers of that impoverishment.”
This typically occurs when Democratic political leaders adopt policies that redistribute wealth from the prosperous to the poor, causing the latter to become economically dependent upon their political patrons, and thus to become a permanently pro-Democrat voting bloc. At the same time, these redistributive policies cause the people harmed by them (i.e., those from whom wealth is extracted) to emigrate to other cities, states, and even countries, thereby further solidifying the political power of Curleyist practitioners.
Curleyists commonly try to gain popular support for their agendas by engaging in incendiary class-warfare rhetoric that demonizes wealthy people as exploiters of the poor. This serves to distract voters from the fact that redistributive left-wing policies may actually be responsible for the declining economic and social conditions around them, while portraying the wealthy as scapegoats upon whom all the grievances of the “underprivileged” may be heaped.
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