Should We Pay Public Servants More?

The burgeoning scandal involving Virginia Governor Bob McDonnel, who is accused of taking money and gifts from donors – raises the question whether politicians need to be paid more.


Business Insider’s Josh Barro says politicians like McDonnell are vastly underpaid, even at $175,000 per year. That’s why they are tempted to take lavish gifts and “loans” from donors – to keep up with some of the high-rollers they are now surrounded by.


He argues politicians are going to feel like they’re entitled to live like kings – and we should start paying them to keep them from these kinds of scandals.


I encounter two main arguments against paying public officials very highly. One is that we want to attract public-spirited people who aren’t in it for the money. The argument goes that public servants should be willing to live on less income than their friends and less than they could make in other work because public service is itself a virtue.

I’m skeptical. I think such public-spiritedness is rare and there are plenty of qualified talents who would be willing to enter public service if it did not entail such a large financial hit compared to other available careers. I also think that public corruption is driven less by a lack of internal virtue than it is by incentives—politicians engage in self-dealing when doing so is appealing and they think they can get away with it.