The best argument for high salaries goes something like this:
- First, it is needed to ensure that the best leaders are paid well, ensuring less corruption;
- Second, that high salaries would serve as an intangible motivator for the lack of a cultural value system that would otherwise motivate a leader.
Are these reasonable arguments, as they have often been repeated in the media?
No country would like to pay their leaders so low as to make it tempting for corruption – to take bribes and deals that will damage the government.
On the other hand, no country would like to pay their leaders so high so as to be aloof to their people’s concerns.
So the mere amount does not itself say much about why salaries should be so. Any leader could claim that different salaries around the world parallel different stages of development that reflect varying abilities, and this will always be accused of those who use statistics as a comparison.
But let’s examine the conventional wisdom closer.
The first claim, that high salaries retain the best leaders, presumes that leaders chosen accurately reflect their abilities. Along with virtues such as honesty, integrity and intelligence, those who are tried through experience in the political system are chosen within a system of merit.
That is what meritocracy expects.
Yet, there are other virtues that may be considered along these lines. The desire to serve fellow citizens, motivated by duty, selflessness and empathy, are relevant considerations as well. By claiming that high salaries justify good leaders, subverts this picture by making it relevant that good leaders should always expect high salaries.
This view of reward and incentive is highly disturbing. Not least because rewarding good leaders high salaries makes it harder to identify leaders who are motivated beyond money within the political process, it incentivizes maintaining salaries – for instance, pegging it to the economy – a main concern.
In other words, even in times when less than ideal economic growth provides more utility for the overall good of society than having more economic growth that provides less net utility, it can be expected that leaders who are preoccupied with maintaining their salaries would go with maximizing growth, among other things.
While high salaries are a way to dis-incentivize corruption, there is no guarantee that there will not arise a culture that reveres wealth for its own sake overriding layman concerns.
Here, it will be rejected among some who will say this is too simplifying, and that there are no other ways one could motivate leaders, that this ‘empty’ notion of duty is all too optimistic.
This leads directly to the second claim: that high salaries serve as an insurance policy against leaders who are not motivated by selfless concerns such as sovereignty, nationhood etc., that are required to defend a country at all costs.
If these are so important, then it should be the case that leaders are not paid excessively more than they should.
Why? Because paying a reasonable amount would make it easier to identify those who are more inclined to serve by selfless concerns who strive to be political leaders.
Because those who would not be motivated by such selfless considerations would not already join politics and would pursue their careers, it is a simple way of sifting out those who are concerned purely by money.
Thus, it is not true that good leaders who have otherwise gone into business or specialized professions would be the best leaders in political life.
In reality, they would not even be the best leaders in the first place, given how if they pursued their careers based on money and prioritizing it highly, that these qualities would constitute their outlook.
In contrast to those who claim that high salaries should be comparable to multinational corporations, paying political leaders reasonably will in fact provide a more delicate balance between rewarding well, and attracting those who are more inclined to serve by selfless concerns.
It is not so much that leaders should be paid miserably, that is not the point here. The problem now is that leaders are paid so much – by some accounts the highest in the world – that it is not for sure that a system is now perpetuating itself at the expense of ordinary layman concerns.
The point here is that no one knows whether high salaries are rewarding merit, or rewarding those within the system to perpetuate what seems to be like merit.
Since the rewards of propagating an unequal system is so strong and irrepressible, there are no good reasons based on intangible factors to increase the overall equitable good of society, and so the status quo remains.
The question of salaries is definitely an unfinished business.