Cheap politicians end up costing us a lot more money

December 29, 2005|By THOMAS SOWELL

I don't make $1 million a year, but I think every member of Congress should be paid at least that much. It's not because those turkeys in Washington deserve it. It's because we deserve a lot better people than we have in Congress.

The cost of paying every member of Congress $1 million a year is absolutely trivial compared with the vast amounts of the taxpayers' money wasted by cheap politicians doing things to get themselves re-elected. You could pay every member of Congress $1 million a year for a century for less money than it costs to run the Agriculture Department for one year.

There is no point complaining about the ineptness, deception or corruption of government while refusing to do anything to change the incentives and constraints that lead to ineptness, deception and corruption.

You are not going to get the most highly skilled or intelligent people in the country, people with real-world experience, while offering them one-tenth or less of what such people can earn in the private sector.

A professor of economics at a leading university earns more than a member of Congress or a justice of the Supreme Court. And a surgeon earns at least twice as much as an economics professor, though still only about one-tenth of what a successful corporate executive can make.

How many people in the top layer of their respective professions are going to sacrifice the future of their families - the ability to give their children the best education, to have something to fall back on in case of illness or tragedy, to retire in comfort and with peace of mind - in order to go into politics?

A few people here and there may be willing to make such sacrifices for the good of the country, but by and large, you get what you pay for. What we are getting as cheap politicians are often a disgrace - and enormously costly as reckless spenders of the taxpayers' money in order to keep themselves getting re-elected.

Whatever the problems faced by the country, the No. 1 priority of elected officials is to get re-elected. Nothing does that better than handing out money from the public treasury. Cheap politicians are expensive politicians, currently costing the taxpayers more than $1 trillion a year.

If you have trouble visualizing what a trillion is, just remember that a trillion seconds ago, no one on this planet could read or write. A trillion seconds is thousands of years. That's the kind of money our cheap politicians are spending in order to keep getting re-elected.

Since re-election is the key, term limits are effective only insofar as they get rid of re-election. If the limit is three terms, then two of those three terms will be spent trying to get re-elected. And the third term will be spent trying to get elected to some other office.

What term limits need to do is make it nearly impossible to spend a whole career in politics. One term per office and some period of years outside politics before running again would be a good principle.

Many people today marvel when looking back at the leaders who created the United States of America. Most of the founders of this country had day jobs for years. They were not career politicians.

Power is such a dangerous thing that ideally it should be wielded by people who don't want to use power, who would rather be doing something else, but who are willing to serve a certain number of years as a one-time duty, preferably at the end of a career doing something else.

What about all the experience we would lose? Most of that is experience in creating appearances, posturing, rhetoric and spin - in a word, deception. We need leaders with experience in the real world, not experience in the phony world of politics.

Thomas Sowell is a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution at Stanford University. His syndicated column appears Thursdays in The Sun. His e-mail is

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