Cheap Politicians – You Get What You Pay For

By Thomas Sowell

You Get What You Pay For
You Get What You Pay For
Thomas Sowell
Thomas Sowell

California –-( The recent bribery convictions of former Virginia governor Bob McDonnell and his wife are only the latest in a seemingly never-ending series of convictions of government officials.

A little item on the Internet featured government officials in prison, either currently or in recent times. Among them were a mayor of New Orleans, a mayor of Detroit and a mayor of Washington; a governor of Connecticut, a governor of Louisiana, two governors of Illinois and four members of Congress.

However much these and other government officials may have richly deserved being behind bars, the country does not deserve to have its confidence in government repeatedly undermined.

A country with 100 percent cynicism about its government cannot be governed. And nobody wants anarchy.

In short, the damage done by government officials who betray the public's trust goes far beyond the money stolen or misused, or whatever particular abuse of power landed them behind bars.

The difference between a government united behind its leaders and a government where no leader can take decisive action with an assurance of public support is a difference between a country that can, and a country that cannot, deal effectively with the challenges it will inevitably face, whether at home or abroad.

When President John F. Kennedy took the United States to the brink of nuclear war in 1962 — justifiably, I believe — he did so with more public support than any president could muster today, even though Kennedy had been elected with the thinnest of margins.

His immediate successors — Lyndon Johnson and Richard Nixon — were both big-time liars who lost the implicit trust that previous presidents had enjoyed, and that none has enjoyed since, even when these later presidents were truthful.

Like many other things, public confidence is much easier to maintain than it is to repair. The main beneficiaries are the public themselves, when they have governments that keep faith with them and can better serve them while relying on their support.

Most of the things that have landed government officials behind bars have involved money.

Without making excuses for those individuals, who were all old enough to know better, the rest of us need to face up to the fact that we are being incredibly penny wise and pound foolish with the salaries we pay for those who control millions of dollars at the municipal level, billions of dollars at the state level and trillions of dollars at the federal level.

A successful economist, engineer or surgeon who leaves the private sector to become a member of Congress would take a serious pay cut.

A Corporate CEO would have to take an even bigger pay cut to become President of the United States.

If the current mess in Washington doesn't convince us that we need better people in public office, it is hard to know what could.

What do we do when we want a more upscale product — a better house or car for example? We pay more to get it!

If we want better people in government, we are going to have to start paying them enough that people would not be sacrificing their families' well-being by going to Washington or a state capitol, or serving as a judge.

It is not a question of whether the people currently serving in Congress, the courts or as chief executives at the municipal, state or national level deserve a raise. Most of them don't. It is a question of whether we need far better replacements for them.

That means drawing from a wider pool, including people with real knowledge and expertise in the private sector, who currently make a lot more money than we are paying government officials. Cheap politicians turn out to be very expensive politicians, in the way they waste money, even if they are not stealing it.

We could pay every member of Congress a million dollars a year — for a whole century — for less than it costs to run the Department of Agriculture for one year.

The least we can do is make it harder to bribe them. Trying to bribe a millionaire would at least be harder than bribing some government official with a modest salary and a couple of kids going to expensive colleges.

The biggest obstacle to doing so is envy, especially under its more lofty name, “social justice.”

About Thomas Sowell
Thomas Sowell is a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution, Stanford University, as well as a prolific author including Black Rednecks And White Liberals. His website is To find out more about Thomas Sowell and read his articles visit his website above.

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    askepticoldshootercthulhucallingRick G. Recent comment authors
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    It is not that our politicians are so cheap, it is that they refuse to stay bought as they peddle their wares hither and yon like common street-walkers (no offense to Working Girls). They ‘sold’ themselves to the constituents that elected them to their position, their first loyalty is to them, and then to the country-at-large.


    Sorry Thomas, but I agree with Rick on this one! In my experience, and I’ve been around for quite a while now, the best leaders are generally those who got drafted into the job almost against their will. I think that anyone who is not willing to give up some money for the privilege of serving his country isn’t someone I want in office anyway. If they are there for the money, why wouldn’t you thin that they’d be MORE, not less, likely to be susceptible to bribery, and other sorts of financial chicanery? Do you think we get a… Read more »


    This smells a lot like ‘the rich are so much better than us and are born to lead’. While we are at it, why not bring back divine right of rule? I thought our government was supposed to be of the people, by the people, for the people, but this sounds a lot like someone wants to bring back the ruling class. Rather than pander to the elite, why not enforce some ethics in our leaders instead? I hesitate to elect a CEO, as of recent, they have shown remarkable ability to crater their corporations and walk away with a… Read more »

    Rick G.
    Rick G.

    Sorry Mr Sowell but on this you are wrong! These people are supposed to be public SERVANTS! They are not supposed to be getting rich on the public dime.They currently make 174,000 a year!(more for leadership positions) They get perks like gym memberships,free haircuts,and cars rented for them at public expense! They get a better healthcare plan than most of us can afford.Add all that to being wined and dined by lobbyists and they make plenty! $174,000 a year puts them well into the upper echelon of pay in America. We want people who love the country and want to… Read more »