Cheap Politicians


Now that the National Football League has apparently learned that it can be costly to hire cheap officials, perhaps the rest of us should learn the same lesson when it comes to government officials, whose bad calls can do a lot more damage.

What do we do when we want a better car, a better home or a better bottle of wine? We pay more for it. We definitely need a lot better crop of public officials. Yet we insist on paying flea market prices for people who will be spending trillions of tax dollars, not to mention making foreign policy that can either safeguard or jeopardize the lives of millions of Americans.

Any successful engineer, surgeon, or financier would have to take a big pay cut to serve in Congress. A top student from a top law school can get a starting salary that is more than we pay a Supreme Court justice.

No doubt many, if not most, government officials are already paid more than they are worth. But the whole point of higher pay is to get better people to replace them.

We may say that we want people in Congress, the courts or the White House who have some serious knowledge and experience in the real world, not just glib tricksters who know how to pander for votes. But we don’t put our money where our mouth is.

Let’s face it. You’re not likely to get a good suit of clothes at a flea market. And you’re not likely to get the cream of the crop to go into the government when they would have to accept a big drop in income to do so.

There are always going to be warm bodies available to fill the jobs in government. We have lots of warm bodies there now. There will also always be some people who are willing to sacrifice their family’s economic security and standard of living, in order to get their hands on the levers of power.

These are precisely the kinds of people whom it is dangerous to have holding the levers of power.

Can we afford to pay members of Congress, the President of the United States, and federal judges the kinds of money that would enable us to tap a far wider pool of far more knowledgeable people with successful real world experience? We can’t afford not to. Cheap politicians are expensive in their reckless spending of tax money. It is the ultimate in being penny-wise and pound-foolish.

To get some idea of the cost, ask yourself: How much would it cost to pay every member of Congress, the president, and every federal judge a million dollars a year?

There are 535 members of Congress, so a salary of a million dollars a year would cost $535 million, or just over half a billion dollars. There are 188 federal appellate judges and one President of the United States. That’s 189 more people, bringing the total number of people to 724, and the total cost to $724 million, at a time when people in Washington are talking trillions.

That is less than one percent of the annual cost of the Department of Agriculture. Put differently, we could pay all of these 724 officials a million dollars a year each — for an entire century — for less than it costs to run the Department of Agriculture for one year.

If we limited how long any given individual could hold office in the government — preferably one term — we could have highly knowledgeable people with real world experience in charge of taking care of the nation’s business, instead of spending their time doing things to get reelected.

They would be a lot harder for special interests to bribe with campaign contributions, when high officials would face no more campaigns after getting elected. We don’t need career politicians.

The best crop of public officials this country has ever had were in the generation that founded the United States of America. Most of the Founders had careers outside of politics.

Is all this a realistic prospect in the world today? Of course not! What is the most realistic prospect today is the status quo today.

But the New Deal was not a realistic prospect three years before Franklin D. Roosevelt took office. It was not a realistic prospect in 1775 that the American colonies would become an independent nation a year later. The whole point of discussing new ideas is to get people thinking about them, so that they might become realistic prospects in the future.

Thomas Sowell is a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution, Stanford University, Stanford, CA 94305. His website is: www.tsowell.com.

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