III.2: What Incentives Drive American Politicians?

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Incentives for Politicians

Is our government a work of genius, a cesspool of corruption, or both?

Virtually all agree that the men who designed America’s government were geniuses and patriots. And they clearly intended to direct all the incentives for politicians toward the public good. But the corruption in that same government has become the butt of jokes. What happened?

Put yourself in the mindset of the founders. Government was simple in those simpler times. An elected official could ride his horse or carriage to Washington; take his turn doing his civic duty for a few weeks or months; and go back home to his private business. This worked especially well for America’s founders who were mostly gentlemen farmers. Congress assembled after harvest and returned home in time for planting.

That is how the founders expected our government to work for the future. The nation’s “natural aristocrats” would be willing to give up a little private time for their country. But government became more complex, and public office became a full-time job. So, positions wound up going to politically ambitious men and women instead.

This is not just a recent problem. While Thomas Jefferson was president, he wrote:

[O]ffice began to be looked to as a resource for every man whose affairs were getting into derangement, or who was too indolent to pursue his profession, and for young men just entering into life. (Jefferson 1803)

We are no longer a simple farming society, so incentives for politicians have changed since America’s founding.

A full-time government job makes it difficult or impossible for a politician to maintain a separate career. So, a government career has become not only full-time, but also life-long, instead of what the founders designed, an occasional stint of civic duty.

Because of these drastic changes in our society, our representative democracy severely misdirects the incentives of elected officials. It regularly forces them to choose between re-election, that is, their own continued employment, and the public good. Which would you choose?

And what went wrong with Madison’s ideal, as I quoted in a recent post? He intended for the wisest among us to be elected to office. More to the point, generally speaking, would a truly wise person even want to run for government office today? In fact, what distinguishes the career goals of a truly wise person from anyone else?

We are often told that if politicians could not get rich we would not attract the best people to run for office.

That is, if we won’t allow officials to get rich from insider trading, we’ll have to settle for officials with mediocre skills.

I find that argument severely flawed for several reasons. First, a wise person would desire continual income security. But an elected office can never guarantee re-election, so there’s no such security. Second, elected office is a full-time job, so it is very difficult for a politician to maintain separate employment to fall back on if he’s not re-elected. So an elected official has to have a high tolerance for risk. But a wise person would want to minimize risk.

So, while there are certainly exceptions, the kind of people who run for public office today are mostly wealth-seekers and power-seekers with a high tolerance for risk. They might be highly educated, possibly even intelligent, and maybe even morally upright. They might be skillful lawyers or businesspeople. But can we routinely expect wealth-seekers, power-seekers, or risk-takers to be wise? Can we expect them to be the kind of people we want in office?

I claim there is a way to change the incentives that drive politicians. How would you do it?

This site is for discussing how to improve our political system. It is NOT for discussing party politics or political figures. So if you have a non-partisan question or comment, feel free to leave it below.

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Jefferson, Thomas. 1803. “From Thomas Jefferson to Thomas McKean, 19 February 1803,” Founders Online, National Archives, version of January 18, 2019, https://founders.archives.gov/documents/Jefferson/01-39-02-0461. [Original source: The Papers of Thomas Jefferson, vol. 39, 13 November 1802–3 March 1803, ed. Barbara B. Oberg. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2012, pp. 552–555.]

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