What Is a System of Patronage?

In modern usage, a system of patronage refers to an organizational structure, usually political, in which officials are perceived to award positions to individuals based on loyalty, support and contributions provided to the company or party instead of on objective standards such as merit. In more general terms, influential societal figures provide security and favors to individuals in exchange for loyalty and favors in return.

Patronage systems are, by their nature, based on mutual reciprocity and debt. Blatant political patronage has slightly declined in most developed countries, as of 2014, but is still commonplace. Nepotism and cronyism are types of patronage in which an official gives power or shows preference to family members and close friends, respectively. These types of patronage are often considered unlawful and unethical in developed nations.

Historically, if a patron offered a favor to a lower member of society who accepted, the person became a client and was obliged to return the favor. At face value, patron-client relationships were voluntary, but patrons might apply pressure to receive the favor they wanted. The type of services offered or requested from one patron-client relationship to another varied, depending on what each party needed and the social climate of the time.

During the Italian Renaissance, wealthy landowners, aristocrats, noblemen, clergymen and even kings would fund projects by various types of artists, but in return the patron often chose the subject matter and the style of the piece; called upon the artists at any time to compose or create a work of her choosing; and was immortalized, in theory, through the artists' dedications.