Cutting the Pay of Legislators: An Act of Justice

Q: Dr. Hurd, I wonder why you think it’s a good idea to drastically cut the pay of members of Congress, as you suggested in a recent article? This is an interesting point. I agree that government officials are public servants, in theory hired to act in the best interests of the country. The lifelong perks and benefits of officials and state employees should be cut and only a reasonable salary should remain in place, in my opinion. However, over the years I have heard many similar complaints that doctors are also “public servants” and shouldn’t be paid so much. In reality this pay cut is presently occurring in medicine and I first hand hear of doctors discouraging their children to enter the medical profession because the long hours, and debts incurred are no longer rewarded commensurately. The same argument that only “selfless” individuals will be drawn into a field that is demanding but pays little has been made about doctors as well. You can point out that the difference between medicine and public office is that doctors still operate somewhat within the private sector, and government is in the public realm, which is paid for by taxes, but I still ask myself the question stated above, “Who will want to take on this job without adequate financial benefit commensurate to the time involved?”  True enough that we have not been attracting the best to office, but isn’t that a function of choice of the American people that would continue even in light of a pay cut?

A: You’re right that people who suggest pay cuts for members of Congress usually do so on the premise that we should attract ‘selfless public servants’ rather than the current crop of people. However, I suggest pay cuts for precisely the opposite reason.

I want people who are accomplished in the private sector and don’t care about a career in politics to serve in office. I don’t expect them to be selfless. I expect them to care about the preservation of freedom, including capitalism and individual rights, in the USA. That’s a self-interested goal, at least to anyone who approaches self-interest rationally.

People who won’t care about the pay cut are people who have already made their living in the private sector. They understand how business works, and they understand what’s required to keep the American economy as we know it going. It’s not that they’re willing to work for nothing. It’s that they don’t see the government as a career opportunity. Presidents come and go after a term or two at the most, but some of our most disgusting and egregious legislators (in both parties) have been at this wealth redistribution, power-hungry business for two, three or four decades and sometimes even longer.

The fact that we have career politicians is symptomatic of an even deeper problem. That problem is that the government does too much, and it does things not authorized by the Constitution. This gives career politicians a rationale for staying in office — well, forever. ‘You need me to stay here and fight for you,’ is their justification. Fight for what, exactly? For programs which involve the transfer of wealth: Education, roads, medical care, or any manner of things which should be produced and purchased in the private sector, not by government. The more you grow the government and make their programs of entitlement permanent, the more you need career politicians to keep those programs in place and always expanding.

I don’t mean to imply that lowering the salaries of legislators will, by itself, rid us of Big Government. The only way to get rid of government is to persuade a majority of people that smaller government is best for individual rights as well as the common good. Most people have been deaf to this argument for many decades now. The problem is that the economy has stopped growing, and the policy of government giving handouts has led to bankruptcy. Bigger problems are coming, because nobody on the current political scene shows a willingness or a capacity for bringing even semi-capitalism back as a social system. Tea Party governors such as Chris Christie in New Jersey talk a good game, but the minute a bad storm blows through their state they’re demanding that the federal government, ‘Give us our aid, and give it now.’ The cycle of dependence and entitlement knows no bottom and has no challengers. Consequently, people are going to have to learn the hard way, assuming they ever learn at all, what it means to give up liberty for the sake of what they call ‘security.’

As for doctors, they provide life-saving services and are entitled to sell those in the private sector, for the best profit they can manage to gain. We don’t prevent grocery stores from making a large profit for selling food; nor should we forbid doctors the same individual right. Of course that profit will have to be earned by good, competent practice, two things for which government, especially when it gets into areas such as health care, has never been known. Doctors are not working in a political capacity, but a private one. Theirs is an economic and professional relationship between doctor and patient. Doctors have no ability to coerce their patients, and patients have no right to coerce their doctors. The relationship between legislator and citizen is fundamentally different. Legislators do have the capacity for coercing citizens to do their bidding, and left unchecked the great majority of those legislators would gladly do so. That’s the whole point of having a system of government in which power is strictly and severely limited to the function of protecting everyone from violent and fraudulent criminals (politicians included!)

Cutting the pay of legislators does not guarantee we will get better ones. The only real solution is to cut the scope and power of government, and return it to its Constitutional limits. The downward spiral of our private economy and the complete bankruptcy of the welfare state are reality’s nonpartisan way of ensuring that people start paying attention to the facts.

In the meantime, cutting the pay of politicians who feed off government money and power like the parasites they are might give citizens a little breathing room. Continuing to reward these legislators with high salaries is not the way to go. If nothing else, cutting their pay would be a rare and deserved act of justice in an era of unprecedented budget deficits that these very politicians keep expanding.