Pay Politicians More?

At Econlog, the very sharp Garett Jones makes an argument for paying politicians more:

There’s some evidence that when it comes to politician quality, you get what you pay for; Besley finds that higher pay for U.S. governors predicts governors with more experience in politics, and Ferraz and Finan look at Brazilian data and find a slower revolving door and better educated politicians in regions where politicians get better pay. But alas the egalitarian ethos in democracies makes it difficult to raise the pay of politicians.

But there’s a countervailing effect of high salaries for politicians: they increase careerism. With high salaries for politicians, you’re more likely to get candidates who give the voters what they want so that they can get (re-)elected. And one of the themes of Jones’s post is that the voters are ignorant and excessively egalitarian: we shouldn’t always give them what they want. We need politicians who are intelligent, informed, and public-spirited. High salaries get us more of the first two and less of the last.

What else does the evidence suggest? In the American states, governments that pay legislators more and generally have more professionalized legislatures have higher government spending. Neil Malhotra has found good evidence that the causal arrow goes from spending to professionalism rather than the other way around. However, his study, for all its sophistication, has some evidentiary holes, and I believe the last word has not been spoken. From my own observations of the highly deprofessionalized, low-paying ($100 a year) New Hampshire legislature, I would say that it attracts candidates who are ideologically motivated but not careerist. They deviate significantly from the views of the median voter, for good or ill.

5 thoughts on “Pay Politicians More?

  1. I think there is a stronger case to be made for paying regulators more, in order to limit capture and the “revolving door.”

  2. Interesting points Jason.

    We can obviously reference the persistence irrationality of voters at large. But as you note, we want politicians who are intelligent, informed, and public-spirited. I question not only the quality of the politicians you get in part-time, citizen-legislator states like New Hampshire, but the public-spirited aspect as well. If these states don’t produce careerism, you’re going to have the same consistent turnover and lack of experience that you see in states with term limits. And while that means you can have more ideologically motivated candidates, it also means that entrenched special interests and their lobbying networks are stronger because they are more informed than the politicians they are dealing with. I also wonder if this produces a stronger executive branch, relative to the legislature, as that’s where the careerism resides.

    What may be needed isn’t to pay politicians more, but to spend more money on their support services. Staff, legislative libraries or education programs, special advisers specific to the legislature (think CBO), etc. It may be easier to take an average Joe with a decent level of public spirit and educate them, than it is to take professional Joe and make him care more about what’s best for the state/nation/community/whatever.

    Alternatively I wonder about the impact of smaller legislative districts.

    1. The problem you note about executive/lobbyist dominance over “citizen legislators” is real & well documented. I certainly oppose term limits for that reason. More staff could help — or even simply more legislators (& smaller districts). The NH House has 400 legislators, which allows for a pretty substantial division of labor among them. Not all legislators even bother to show up for votes, let alone committee meetings, however. Another common feature of NH politicians’ careers is holding down multiple elective offices, some of which may actually pay a decent salary.

  3. You might want to update the definition of and job responsibilities for elected government officials first, that could then inform decisions about work schedule and pay levels. At every level of government – Local, State, & Federal – the dynamic I see playing out, regardless of party affiliation, is a broad sense of urgency among elected officials to do something. Mayor Bloomberg, with his nanny-centric ideas and policy proposals is, perhaps, the most egregious example. Define what you want them to do, then hire (elect) and pay accordingly.

    I’m reminded of the notion: “if you want more of something, subsidize it”. Before raising the pay of elected officials it would make sense to define what it is you want more of…

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