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December 15th, 2017

Insight

Cheap Politicians

Thomas Sowell

By Thomas Sowell

Published Sept. 10, 2014

Cheap Politicians

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."

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Thomas Sowell, a National Humanities Medal winner, is an American economist, social theorist, political philosopher and author. He is currently Senior Fellow at the Hoover Institution, Stanford University.

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