Justice, ethos, and parliamentary expenses

by Chris Bertram on May 10, 2009

A brief note on “the crisis”:http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/newstopics/mps-expenses/ that is currently shaking public confidence in the British government and its MPs: some MPs are making the point that they merely did what they were entitled to under the rules. Much of the public reaction to their behaviour is predicated on the view that, whatever the rules said, strictly speaking, they acted unjustly in milking the public purse for private advantage. An interesting echo, there, of Jerry Cohen’s view that justice should not just govern institutional design, but also private attitudes and actions. Thomas Nagel observed,

bq. it is difficult to combine, in a morally coherent outlook, the attitude toward inequalities due to talent which generates support for an egalitarian system with the attitude toward the employment of their own talent appropriate for individuals operating within it. The first attitude is that such inequalities are unfair and morally suspect, whereas the second attitude is that one is entitled to try to get as much out of the system as one can. [_Equality and Partiality_, p. 117]

Nagel, thinks (on broadly Rawlsian lines) that the “personal perspective” is entirely defensible and that the difficulty can be overcome. The British electorate may take a different view.



John Quiggin 05.10.09 at 9:43 am

I don’t know the details, Chris, but in issues like this that have come up in Australia, the concerns seem to be somewhat more prosaic. Either
(i) the expense allowance system have been seen by the public as an organised rort, by which parliamentarians have been able to increase their effective pay while avoiding public scrutiny; of
(ii) the rules were designed with legitimate expenses in mind, but individual parliamentarians have been seen as rorting the system by submitting claims that may satisfy the letter, but violate the spirit of the rules

Similar points arise with tax avoidance/evasion. The dodgers can claim that they were legally entitled to their dodges, but they are seen by most as acting to subvert the institutional design of the tax system, not merely taking advantage of the opportunities it provides.


chris y 05.10.09 at 10:05 am

I suspect that the lack of the term “organised rort” in British English has in fact contributed strongly to there being far more noise over this sequence of events than it deserves.


Ciarán 05.10.09 at 10:07 am

I think I’m with John’s first point: surely the public attitude is that there is no difference between public and private inegalitarianism here? I doubt it’s entirely accurate but the general feeling seems to be that the system was specifically set up with low-level graft in mind. It helps fit the whole thing in with the long-established ‘they’re all robbing bastards’ narrative about British politicians.


Chris Bertram 05.10.09 at 10:48 am

I wasn’t seeking to be unprosaic, John. The tiny point I was making is just that the distinction between the letter and the spirit of the rules — also in avoidance/evasion cases — is all you really need to get talking about the importance of ethos as well as rule-compliance.


Tracy W 05.10.09 at 11:49 am

It is entirely plausible that from the politician’s point of view, their personal actions were dominated by justice. I don’t have any particular insight on the life of UK MPs, but in NZ MPs work ridiculously long hours, are paid far less than say top doctors or rugby players, often are under considerable stress from the media and the other parties, and face a public that gets far more upset about a few hundred thousand dollars spending by them than by billions of additional dollars going into the healthcare sector without anything to show for it. Direct raises of MPs’ salaries generally get attacked by the media.
If UK MPs have similar experiences, and taking into account the general ability of most of us to convince ourselves that our own inclinations are in line with justice, I can easily imagine most MPs convincing themselves that their private actions are just, they are making use of a secondary line of compensation given that the obvious one of raising salaries is politically difficult.
That’s the trouble with the idea that we should act with justice in our personal lives, it’s that we are not unbiased observers. Some people have coped with this temptation by leading incredibly restricted personal lives, eg Gandhi, but it seems unlikely that the entire UK parliament could be stocked with Gandhis.


novakant 05.10.09 at 12:37 pm

This could easily be fixed:

scrap all allowances and raise their salaries, which they can spend on whatever they want.


Stuart 05.10.09 at 1:04 pm

– The decision a couple of decades ago to boost the ability of MPs to make lots of claims to avoid putting up their salaries was clearly stupid, as it was bound to lead to something like this in the end
-There are certain a few MPs that have pushed the rules to the limit, and hopefully this comes back and bites them next election
-I can’t see a large chunk of the media has any credibility here though; certainly any that devoted front pages and faked a huge outrage about a £10 receipt claim (no matter what it was claiming for) a few weeks ago clearly had no interest in justice/ethics and were just jumping at the chance of embarassing someone publicly


grackle 05.10.09 at 4:09 pm

and thanks to John Q for that splendid new (to me) word.


andthenyoufall 05.10.09 at 5:04 pm

You can still distinguish three levels between the sort of egalitarian ethos/outlook that Cohen and Nagel are talking about, and the much milder ethos that would be required to follow the spirit, rather than the letter, of the law. For example, I might earn millions of dollars, which I spend utterly selfishly, but cheerfully pay my taxes at the decreed rate without having my lawyers and accountants figure out dubious ways to reduce them. That sort of ethos/outlook, I’d guess, differs from the other in that it stems more from something like honesty, or good sportsmanship, than from a sense of justice.

In other words, one can take the view that the rules were abused without necessarily thinking that the politicians ought never to have had personal interest in mind when using expense accounts.


Katherine 05.10.09 at 5:07 pm

Novokant, the difficulty with that solution is that a lot of the allowances relate to travel, which impacts a lot more on MPs who have to travel a long way between their constituencies and Westminster. It doesn’t seem fair to me that an MP from the north of Scotland should be paid the same as (which means effectively less than) an MP from the home counties. Although I suppose you could also make an argument for regional weighting that might rebalance the scales.

Chris y, I recall maybe a couple of years ago a columnist in the Times complaining, in relation to a similar expenses controversy, that we Brits made far too much of a fuss about this sort of thing, given how little corruption there actually is. He contrasted us with Italy, where fleecing the expenses system was entirely standard, and no one gave a shit. It didn’t seem to occur to him tha the very reason there was so little corruption was because of the huge fuss that occurred over a small thing, comparatively. May I respectfully suggest that the same principle should apply to your statement implying that this whole thing deserves a lot less attention than it is getting – the fact that it is getting so much attention is what keeps things so small as to not really be deserving of so much attention.


Henri Vieuxtemps 05.10.09 at 5:47 pm

I strongly suspect that the sort of person who becomes a politician (or ‘earns’ millions of dollars) is exactly the sort of person who will abuse rules (or practice tax evasion).


Katherine 05.10.09 at 7:07 pm

I have known in my life plenty of people who have become politicians for whom that is most definitely not the case. How many do you know?


novakant 05.10.09 at 7:37 pm

the difficulty with that solution is that a lot of the allowances relate to travel, which impacts a lot more on MPs who have to travel a long way between their constituencies and Westminster.

Give all of them a free rail/tube pass, I would have thought they had that already.


Nick Barnes 05.10.09 at 7:38 pm

The worst aspect of the whole stupid saga is the stupid media farts dribbling on about how important it is to recruit and retain the most able people to be MPs, and so therefore it’s OK to give them a free rein with absurd expenses claims.

MPs, even back-bench MPs, get paid very well. Maybe not as well as some stupid media farts, but considerably more than the great majority of the rest of us. And I see no evidence that they are in any way the best and the brightest. I know a lot of people who have been working hard for decades at demanding jobs, with excellent qualifications, who earn a fraction of an MP’s salary. Any of them could be an MP, except for the whole having-a-conscience angle.

It reminds me very much of the US wingnut media tarts threatening to “Go Galt”.

Stupid greedy MPs, stupid overpaid media, stupid stupid stupid.


Henri Vieuxtemps 05.10.09 at 7:38 pm

If I say ‘none’, will my theory have been disproven; just like that?


harry b 05.10.09 at 7:44 pm

Most of the people I’ve known who have become politicians (a few) have been people who could have earned at least 3 times as much in the private sector, and had more status thereby. And knew it.

The rules are ridiculous. Some of the infractions of decency, though, are the kind of thing that people must have thought up to increase their incomes. And ministers, in particular, should have been much more careful than some seem to have been.


JoB 05.10.09 at 8:32 pm

Any of them could be an MP, except for the whole having-a-conscience angle.

Or, Cohen reversed. Not quite true but it’s true enough that politicians are preselected in dubious ways in current Western democracies leaving us with lots of chaff in office, and lots of talent for politics that’s nauseated simply by looking at what you have to do as an entry rite into ‘modern’ particracy. The story in Belgium of the week was some or other nitwit being elected into a spin-off liberal party joining the traditional liberals for a week or two then going back leaking the letter where the traditional liberals promised him a de facto 8-year certainty of a parliamentary wage – if not elected he would be one of the trusted advisors paid by the party on state funds.

I’m not convinced these things are illegal. It’s mainly that it can’t be prosecuted since it is kind of hard in a democracy to prosecute the people elected by the people.

But no, it doesn’t show Cohen is right. It shows the system is a bad one and needs fixing: so fix it, already.


MDHinton 05.10.09 at 8:52 pm

It’s true that most people will feel that whatever you can do, within the law, to your advantage is fair game. There is a huge difference, however, when you are the law-maker.


Henri Vieuxtemps 05.10.09 at 9:13 pm

I don’t think it’s true at all that most people will push the envelope to maximize their advantage. And those who don’t (a very large majority, I suspect), are (obviously) unlikely to succeed in such competitive fields as politics or business. They are ordinary people.


Jacob Christensen 05.10.09 at 11:07 pm

I’m not an expert on the Danish system, but it seems that the main issues have been linked with the secondary home allowance which is linked with the distance between the seat of parliament (Copenhagen) and the first-home. One such story involved the later Justice Minister and present chairman (sic!) of the Conservative Party; who registered as living with her parents in Northern Jutland while she had her first home in Copenhagen; afaik domestic train and air travel is free for Danish MPs.

Some of the stories about the UK system seem outright bizarre, so I’d suspect that something is very wrong with the institutional set-up. The European Parliament’s system appear to have the same weaknesses, but media reports are received with a cynical shrug.

As a political scientist I would probably argue that rules should be designed so that they minimise the incentives to abuse (“ethics is good but rules are better”, to paraphrase somebody who did not support parliamentary government), but the question of allowances for politicians is notoriously difficult.

And yes: If you really want money and access to expense accounts, you should choose the private sector, not politics. It’s just that politicians are much more visible than most businessmen.


engels 05.11.09 at 12:02 am

If you really want money and access to expense accounts, you should choose the private sector, not politics.

Some people are able to combine the two.


engels 05.11.09 at 1:23 am

Pace Katherine, I am not sure that stipulating that only people who have friends who are politicians may express an opinion on the moral state of our country’s politicians is necessarily going to lead to the most accurate or unbiased aggregate judgement. I also think that the line about being able to earn n times as much in the private sector (ie. the City of London and closely associated bean-feasts), while undeniably a helpful one over the last few years for everyone from senior civil servants to university professors, is probably now past its sell-by date. Other than that, what Nick said. ¡Que se vayan todos!


engels 05.11.09 at 1:25 am

Pace Katherine, I am not certain that stipulating that only people who have friends who are politicians may express an opinion on the moral state of our country’s politicians is necessarily going to lead to the most accurate or unbiased aggregate judgement. I also think that the line about being able to earn n times as much in the private sector (ie. the City of London and closely associated bean-feasts), while undeniably a helpful one over the last few years for everyone from senior civil servants to university professors, is probably now past its sell-by date. Other than that, what Nick said. ¡Que se vayan todos!


Bloix 05.11.09 at 4:39 am

I don’t see how anyone could claim that these expenses were within the rules. To be reimburseable, an expense must be “necessary for the member to incur to ensure that he or she could perform his or parliamentary duties.” And expenditures must not have the appearance of providing a “personal financial benefit” to the member or anyone else. Surely a person sophisticated enough to be in Parliament can be expected to understand this kind of legal standard.


JoB 05.11.09 at 8:49 am

unlikely to succeed in such competitive fields as politics or business. They are ordinary people.

That’s close to the real issue. We have supercharged politicians that want to be as supercharged as they think businessmen are and that think it’s everybody’s ethical responsibility to be just as supercharged as they are. The principle of any rules in the direction of equal chances is to try to eliminate such biases favouring non-essential qualities but Western democracies go opposite, & instead of intellectuals resisting this we get intellectuals busying themselves with parafernalia of some sort (probably because they have a supercharged conscience as well nowadays).

the line about being able to earn n times as much in the private sector (..) is probably now past its sell-by date.

Certainly when combined with the ‘we’re doing it because we’re committed to society’ which is a load of crap (on the average) because the fact is that politicians earn n times as much as most of the others (and they should earn more such that they don’t whine about their earnings) and this (combined with the media exposure) is not totally unrelated to their ‘calling’. But one moralizes less effectively I suppose if one is not convinced of one’s moral superiority to the rest of us.

I don’t see how anyone could claim that these expenses were within the rules.

But they do because they know they can only be judged by their peers and they know all of their peers do the same or need a favour or two to get a shot at re-election or a state job soon. If that’s not a sign of system failure, I don’t know.

but the question of allowances for politicians is notoriously difficult.

And it should remain so, the solution is in ensuring that elected officials have some real de facto independence instead of being forced into a corporatistic straight jacket.

Said David Cameron: “MP’s should say they are sorry”.

Can you be more moronic than that? Isn’t this the pinnacle of cretinism? Politicians confess and move on. Bankers at least are called upon to face changes in the way their system works.


Mike Power 05.11.09 at 8:51 am

MPs may well be claiming that they acted ‘within the rules’ but let’s see what the police and the Inland Revenue have to say before we make a final assesment of whether they were simply getting the most of of the system or actually being dishonest.


Omar Khan 05.11.09 at 9:23 am

Perhaps I’m overreaching, but this also may undermine politicians’ attempts to criticize those who act within the law but fail to be appropriately civic. The obvious examples are individual tax evaders (‘non-doms’) and companies that set up foreign headquarters purely to maximize income or, rather, to minimize tax payments. These tax evaders’ behaviour and motivations looks suspiciously like that of the MPs (within the rules, but against standards of public morality), who then face the dangerous charge of hypocrisy when they criticize these evaders.

But these revelations are also likely to undermine government claims that we are all too cynical about politics and less likely to express public spirit towards one another. It’s going to be very hard for politicians to insist that we ought to act on our civic obligations to one another if their actions seem to suggest that they’re only willing to do so given a significant income/second homes/etc. If MPs are only going to do their job if they’re given incentives to do so, it sure doesn’t look like they’re acting on principles of justice – and are these the sorts of motivations we want for people in political office? While i dont want to be too idealistic about the motivations for going into politics, I think the claims that MPs could earn x times more in the private sector not only suggest that financial incentives are the only way to get good/smart/motivated people to be public servants, but make it very hard for them to get the public to engage more in public debate – unless we too all get some nice financial incentives, like being paid to vote or a paid holiday on voting day?


novakant 05.11.09 at 10:02 am

I still have this crazy, old-fashioned idea in my head that success in the upper levels of the private sector should correlate with the ability to actually run (or, gasp, even found) a company and turn a profit over a period of several years without relying on nepotism, handouts or subsidies. I’m rather skeptical that all those claiming they could be paid a lot more in the private sector have this ability.


harry b 05.11.09 at 1:44 pm

Well, MPs in the UK may well be well-paid. The politicians I know are not (I worked out at one point that they are paid barely above the minimum wage if they do their job properly). Many of their colleagues I am sure (no, I’ll go further, I have good evidence for this!) are not very capable. Those I know are very capable.
I can’t speak for Katherine, but I was not suggesting that knowing politicians was a requirement for commenting. Just providing a little bit of data, which of course only goes as far as you are willing to trust me (and her).
There’s another question though. There are, in fact, some fantastically capable and morally decent MPs (names? Ok, excluding anyone I actually know, Chris Mullin, Tony Wright come immediately to mind). Are they (morally wrongly) wasting their lives? Its arguable that both the named persons could be doing much more good in the world, and having more fun, and, probably, making more money, doing something else. Does Cohen think they should be?


harry b 05.11.09 at 1:44 pm

Making more money which, of course, they could easily give away, thereby doing even more good.


JoB 05.11.09 at 1:57 pm

Harry, ‘barely above the minimum wage’, are you suggesting the other popular myth is true that a good politician ‘has to work at least 80 hours a week’ to get to a low hourly wage? If so – that is also a lame excuse as there is no evidence that one needs 80 hours a week to do good legislation and if it would be so, it would be anti-social to occupy those 2 jobs with 1 person getting double salary. Or are you referring to an unknown country in which MP’s get a monthly income below, and well below, the average income of that country?

PS: I’m fine with them earning a lot more than they do, I’m not fine with them whining and then keeping things in a perpetual status quo


dsquared 05.11.09 at 2:36 pm

For what it’s worth, of the three MPs I’ve ever known, one was extremely high-calibre and could certainly have earned a lot more in the private sector (and I think she may have taken an actual pay cut on getting elected). One was very able and intelligent, but in my opinion had a number of character traits (disorganised, not a team player, intellectually arrogant) which would have made it very difficult for him to have made a high-earning career outside politics. And the last one was a real also-ran who was going nowhere when he was selected for what Labour believed to be an unwinnable seat in 1997, won it on the basis of the massive national landslide that year, and hasn’t quite got round to losing it yet. After politics, in my assessment he has fundamentally no chance of ever getting near an MP’s salary.

Of the three, I suspect that the second is the most common; MPs’ basic salaries put them in the very highest bits of the income distribution (a single MP is too high up for the IFS calculator to measure; an MP who is the sole earner in a household with a spouse and 2 children is still at the 92nd percentile). I don’t think many of them would be able to earn multiples of that.

In any case, given that we have 650 of them, why do we need really good MPs? Condorcet’s theorem suggests we only need to find 650 people who have a slightly better than 50/50 chance of getting it right.


harry b 05.11.09 at 2:37 pm

I’ve never heard the people I’m referring to whine at all. In fact, I’ve been discouraged from making an issue of it.

I’ve now redone the calculation, and found that I either did the calculation wrong or misremembered it. State-level politicians in my (non-mythical, thought certainly bordering a different, mythical) state. They earn about 3 times minimum wage (those that do the job properly which, I know, many do not). Just under $50k per annum working about 60 hours a week. But, they are still earning that even after 30 years of service in a job which requires round the clock attention to constituents (who are not properly served by Federal level representatives) and fundraising (because of the stupid and reprehensible campaign financing laws) and spending at least half the week away from their families (for those who live a significant distance from the state capitol) or constant driving back and forth. It might not take 60 hours a week to write good legislation in a sane system, but it does take 60 hours a week to do their job in the system they actually inhabit. I stand by the 3 times comment.

I don’t feel sorry for them; in every case they chose it, and had other good options. And the expenses system here is very simple, and not really subject to abuse. And no doubt some are greedy and hoping to hit the Federal office jackpot. And no doubt many of them are married to lawyers. I’d like to see the world reformed so that no-one earns more than 3 times what they earn. And, as I said above, not only is the UK system of expenses absurd, but many of the politicians seem to have deliberately used them to supplement their not-ungenerous salaries. And Omar Khan above is right. I’m only reacting to the “plague on them all” comments above: some of these people are talented, work very hard, and are committed to the interests of the (in the case of the people I know) disadvantaged people they are supposed to represent.


harry b 05.11.09 at 2:38 pm

dsquared — is that the right question? Shouldn’t the question be — why do we need 650 of them?


JoB 05.11.09 at 2:57 pm

harry, sure – “plague them all” is over the top (and I also have politician-friends and I vote and I do not vote one of these “plague them all” parties); there are good politicians, no doubt, but – we would have more of them if they collectively relooked at their own system, such that those that might be good politicians (not me, by the way) have a shot at it.

As to the 60 hours: I don’t buy it. I know the system is like that nowadays but it shouldn’t be like that. If elected people do not have the guts to change the system, who will?

Constituents should not be going, by the way, to ‘their’ representatives; they should vote and be done with their representatives if they fail to represent them well. We don’t need a winer/diner-parliament.


harry b 05.11.09 at 3:07 pm

I think you underestimate the job. For people without the means to secure legal representation, going to their representative is often the best thing they can do when they are being screwed over by the state (in any of its guises). EG, their social security payments stop arriving and they cannot get a response from the bureaucracy; their kid is disabled and they cannot get disability payments, etc. This kind of thing takes a lot of the time of conscientious local politicians, and (in our state) they have very limited resources in terms of aides, office support, etc. And they could just say “well, I won’t do much of this, because it is a waste of my time and these people don’t vote anyway” but some would be haunted by the fact that they could have made someone’s life better.
There is a limit to what they can do about the campaign financing system because of constitutional law; and attempts to change it for the better are often frustrated by their colleagues.


harry b 05.11.09 at 3:11 pm

Oh and I completely agree with your first para in #35, and include myself in the “not me”!


Henri Vieuxtemps 05.11.09 at 3:46 pm

I used to have a colleague who was the chairman of the board of selectmen of a small town. Part-time and, I believe, either voluntary or paying a couple of hundred/month job. He certainly was a nice guy, but I wouldn’t venture to guess what his motives were, and whether he was abusing whatever little power he had (I seem to remember some controversy about liquor stores hours), and if so, to what extent. So, there.

But those people in the link, British MPs, they are not the equivalent of local or state politicians; I imagine these are very powerful people.


harry b 05.11.09 at 3:51 pm

NO! Most of them are almost powerless (hence my question about Mullin and Wright, who would have much more power outside parliament I’d have thought and are exactly the kind of people I want having power)…. I’d guess about 100 MPs max are powerful! (opinions will vary, and I defer to just about any informed opinion, but if informed opinion exceeds 100 I’ll be gobsmacked!)


engels 05.11.09 at 4:48 pm

I think Steven Levitt’s work on ‘why drug dealers live their mums’ provides the neatest explanation of MP’s low average pay, without departing from mainstream economic assumptions about human nature. (Since these are what everyone from government officials to left-wing academics use to understand and improve the lives of the ‘disadvantaged’ I suppose they should do as well for the very-much-advantaged.)

I must admit I haven’t really been a fan of Cohen’s work since IYaE (with a few honourable exceptions, like the Freedom and Money lectures). I don’t have a strong enough stomach for the parlour game of debating how many of us have lived wasted lives.

You will find capable and morally decent people in all walks of life, Harry. £60 000 / year may not be a fortune by the standards of Goldman Sachs or All Souls College, Oxford but compared to the £60 / week (but only if you’re good, of course) which anyone without a job has been obliged to live on in the 12 years since Labour came to power it is beyond imagination. I suspect that many capable and morally decent people in such a situation may feel little gratitude or respect for yours and Katherine’s friends, however generous they have been with their time and sympathy.


chris y 05.11.09 at 4:52 pm

I’d guess a hundred was about right – the cabinet and junior ministers, the shadow cabinet and a few individuals in the minor parties, often with local power enhanced by membership of Parliament, e.g the NIrish. But why we need 650 of them is precisely because the rest damn well ought to be operating as advocates for their constituents. Nobody else will, and to be fair most of them do (yes, of course there are exceptions). The average constituency contains about 75,000 registered voters, plus their kids and all the slackers. If you made the ratio of representatives much bigger, their job would become impossible.


harry b 05.11.09 at 5:03 pm

60,000 pounds is pretty good by All Souls standards. I don’t have any friends who are UK MPs and didn’t imply otherwise. As I say, wages should be enormously more equal than they are. In fact they are enormously unequal, and the only point was that even in the UK if greed is a significant motivation, parliament is a bad bet. (And in the US, state-level politics is a worse bet). No-one was arguing that any MPs are owed or should expect gratitude, engels (I suggested they are not). Sneering at those who do their job well, along with those who don’t, is fine if that’s your taste. Or are you just, again, sneering at other commenters? That’s fun too, no doubt.


Tracy W 05.11.09 at 5:04 pm

On the going to the MP point – well, my father-in-law applied for a passport, having let his old one expire a couple of decades ago, and the passport office announced that he didn’t exist, despite him pointing out that IRD had been taking money from him for a number of years at which point I said “Contact your MP”. One of my mum’s friends, had been teaching for years, the law changed so that teachers required a teaching qualification, but the teachers’ college refused to accept her because she had been teaching so long – so she contacted her MP. That’s what MPs can do, deal with those sorts of bureaucratic snarlups.

Plus, presumably an MP goes into politics because they want to accomplish something, say reforming fishing rights before the fisheries collapse. This takes time and effort because it’s a sales job, and one the seller really has to believe in. If an MP wants to fix more than one thing, their workload goes up accordingly.

. And I see no evidence that they are in any way the best and the brightest.

Pay peanuts and you get monkeys.

Actually this one as a general issue has always bemused me. How do you decide what the right salary is for someone who is employed by the state where there isn’t a market equivalent? How should we be paying MPs relative to experienced doctors? Or to school principals? (To pick jobs which presumably most people believe have social value, and do have some sort of market salary). Of all the multiple factors we weigh in putting together our votes, how much does the competence of the individual MP come into this? How good are we at deciding who to vote for? Would we get any more competent MPs if we paid them more? – perhaps our MP selection process is totally stuffed up.
I don’t have any answer to this, but it’s rather unavoidable when it comes to MP salaries, unless of course you can convince me that we should restrict parlimentary membership to the independently wealthy. And it’s not just MPs, police officers and judges don’t have private sector equivalents.
Any left-wing philosophical types have a comprehensive answer to what government employees should be paid?


Dave Weeden 05.11.09 at 5:21 pm

Harry B ‘Most of them are almost powerless…’ Compared to whom? Also as you say “…about 100 MPs max are powerful!” So being an MP gives you better than a 1 in 7 chance of being powerful (unlike the rugby players Tracy W @ 5 mentions), and it’s the right job for those who want power. I’m not really convinced by your denial. Who apart from MPs and the odd media tycoon is powerful anyway?


chris y 05.11.09 at 5:29 pm

I believe MPs’ salaries (not expenses) are linked to those of Grade 5 civil servants – usually divisional directors or thereabouts.

The point I was actually going to make is that Chris Brooke has a brilliant solution to this problem.


harry b 05.11.09 at 5:35 pm

Dave, that’s not really true — most MPs never participate in government, and with the information they have we could predict for most of them which they will be (when Purnell and the two Millibands became MPs there was a much much higher than 1 in 7 chance they would end up in the cabinet); and even most junior ministers have very limited room for manoeuvre compared with, for example, senior and even not-quite senior civil servants. Individual MPs do have power with respect to getting certain things done for constituents. But I was particularly responding to HV’s “pretty powerful people”. If, as I randomly guessed, HV’s point of comparison is US politicians, I’d say that mayors of reasonable sized cities, Governors, leaderships in state legislatures and almost all elected members of congress are much more powerful than the vast majority of MPs


Nick Barnes 05.11.09 at 5:37 pm

Pay peanuts and you get monkeys

Snappy, but not in fact true. Pay peanuts and you get any number of people who either (a) have a vocation, or (b) don’t much care about money, or (c) are tolerably happy muddling along, or (d) are monkeys.

For instance, school teachers in the UK have been paid peanuts for several decades. Some of them are indeed monkeys, but not – in my experience and opinion – a majority.


JoB 05.11.09 at 5:49 pm

harry-36, I know that many have good intentions and I know that many need recourse to politicians to get things done – but, as the husband of a civil servant, I do not think it is wise that elected officials should intercede on behalf of their voters in specific cases. It makes them feel righteous. It makes them lazy as to their real job – making sure that there are no such lacunas in the civil service. It makes the civil service lazy & too much tied to politics (reacting quickly to a politician gets them better shots than reacting at a normal speed to an individual citizen). But the worst of all: it sustains a system where it is acknowledged and accepted that most people put up for election by their parties are a bunch of bozo’s whose mission in life is to sustain the party organization and who feel they have earned the right to acquiesce because of the ‘good works’.

We should not perpetuate the office of parish priest in the guise of politics!

Granted – the actual reality is as you describe & many of them do the best within limits of the system (I’m even sure that 95% of them have no evil streak other than the vanity that’s everywhere). But this should not defuse our alertness to what is clearly an enormous systemic threat to modern Western democracy. Just look at Western Europe election results in the past two decades – from 10 to 40% of the vote is immobilized because of voters disgusted with party politics and this is growing. As we know: you don’t need 50% popular support to topple a regime.


harry b 05.11.09 at 6:42 pm

JoB, well, there’s nothing I disagree with there in principle. In practice, how feasible it is to extricate oneself from these activities while still doing one’s job depends on the design of the system, the level of corruption within it, the level of competence of the civil service, etc. So, speaking from where I’m speaking from, I don’t see a way around it for the individual legislator.
There are SO MANY other things too — frivolous legislation, stupid “pronouncements”, give-aways (I never bothered to check whether my congresswoman and senator voted for the $40 digital TV conversion box vouchers because I was too depressed, but I bet they did) etc — that they shouldn’t get caught up in and do. All of which, also, contribute to the phenomenon you worry about.

I’m going to think about something less demoralising for a while.


Sebastian 05.11.09 at 6:44 pm

This seems like lesson number 5,397 for the proposition that you need to cultivate an ethos of following the spirit of the law, because the letter of the law can always be evaded.


JoB 05.11.09 at 7:07 pm

harry, sorry to have demoralised you; all in all things are progressing albeit very badly.

I’m rather optimistic, you know, except for the point of power concentration in public -and in private – affairs. People are increasingly educated and most of us are not power- or money-hungry; we just have to come up with some ceremonial functions that satisfy the hunger for attention and decorum of the others. An increase in reality television or an elaborate hoax letting them believe they are saving the world could do the trick.

Come to think of it, maybe that’s exactly what’s going on here ;-)


JoB 05.11.09 at 7:08 pm

strike the strike-through in 51, big brother is watching me!


Dave Weeden 05.11.09 at 7:51 pm

Harry @ 46. Well, first off, I think we have a language problem. We mean different things by ‘pretty powerful.’ If we substituted ‘rich’ for ‘powerful’, you’d be talking about those near the top of the Fortune 500; I mean those in the top one per cent of the population. Yes, MPs, in the main, aren’t as powerful as the Prime Minister, other ministers, and _possibly_ civil servants (I’m not sure I agree with you there). But they’re certainly more powerful than academics generally.

Remember Neil Hamilton and the cash for questions scandal? Now, Hamilton was a minister at the time, but he was accused of taking money from Mohamed Al-Fayed for asking questions in the House. All MPs can table questions: these questions do have real political consequences – enough to be of value to the rich and sleazy. (Of course MPs shouldn’t receive money for exercising their rights.) That may not be a glamourous power, but it’s certainly power. Just because a few handfuls of people have a great deal more power than that, doesn’t diminish the fact that the rest of us have a lot less.

I realise that you were replying to HV’s use of ‘pretty powerful’. I’m trying to address the same point.


harry b 05.11.09 at 8:03 pm

Dave — I think the first para is fair enough — I really was writing in the context of my assumption about HV’s comparison class (which may have been completely false). And the second para is true too. I think this power is more limited than you do but I have no sensible way of operationalising “more power than” in this context. If you are right that might be a good reason for people like Wright and Mullin to stay in parliament. Still, I stand by the comparison with US elected officials.


Tracy W 05.11.09 at 8:43 pm

Pay peanuts and you get any number of people who either (a) have a vocation, or (b) don’t much care about money, or (c) are tolerably happy muddling along, or (d) are monkeys.

And how many monkeys do you want voting in your country’s parliament? And I think that if someone merely doesn’t care much about money, or is tolerably happy muddling along, they’re not going to go through all the pressure of campaigning, party politics to get the nomination in the first place, media attacks, and terrible hours, (at least in NZ, I will leave others to comment on their country’s MPs’ working conditions).

Of course I don’t know if paying more would in reality get us better quality MPs. I have doubts about the quality of my own votes, let alone anyone else’s. But whenever I do hear someone complaining about the quality of MPs, the thought springs to mind that in a democracy if our MPs are bad that’s a reflection on us as much as them.


Henri Vieuxtemps 05.11.09 at 8:47 pm

On my part – point taken; federal level politicians in the US are extremely powerful, to the extent that it’s hard for me to believe that any of them may not be corrupt; or even that an honest person can become one. If it’s different in the UK – so much the better.


Talleyrand 05.11.09 at 10:15 pm

@Tracy W, #55

I don’t know what planet you are living on but I can think of loads of people who cannot plausibly be said to care about money in the sense of pursuing political power for the purpose of rent-seeking or in terms of being indifferent between occupations on any basis other than salary. My favorite is Lenin, who worked harder on his political activities than I can imagine doing and got paid nothing prior to being in power and then got buttons after the revolution. If you don’t happen to like Lenin’s politics, then what about all the independently wealthy aristoes who go into politics, like David Cameron.

Your claim about peanuts and monkeys seems to boil down to the idea that we should prefer to recruit people as MPs who value money over power relatively more than the people we currently have. I see no reason why this is should be the case.


Nur al-Cubicle 05.12.09 at 1:04 am

Gee, at least a one millionaire has shown restraint:
Lord Andrew Lloyd-Webber claimed zero in Parliamentary expenses…


JoB 05.12.09 at 7:40 am

Tracy W,

And I think that if someone merely doesn’t care much about money, or is tolerably happy muddling along, they’re not going to go through all the pressure of campaigning, party politics to get the nomination in the first place, media attacks, and terrible hours

Maybe so but that’s the problem: the only people that survive this struggle are those that can go through all that (and therefore are also on average more power- and money-hungry).

Of the survivors there are a few who don’t hunger for the money and mean well (initially) and a few that hunger for the power (and initally not the money) and are quite good at politics. These few tend to get corrupted (in fact they will actively be sought out by the others for corruption – we never quite grow out of the schoolyard when playing in groups). Anyway, they are minority.

The problem is that the survivors have been selected based on a struggle that has no relation to the struggle presented by legislation. This means good legislators are disqualified on purely co-incidental reasons and bad legislators structurally seep into the system adapting it more & more to their own success (i.e. corrupting it).

Nobody would want a judiciary of monkeys but nobody would want a judiciary made up of our best social bonders irrespective of their qualities as to the law. Why do we settle for less or give up the fight in the case of the legislators? To me (I know I’m boring you) this is the number one problem for the West – it is much more problematic than the GFC – the GFC by the way is being one of the shields used in defense of current politicians: ‘we should not be distracted at this time of crisis &c &c &c

PS: and sure, we get the politicians we deserve which only means we should start to want to be deserving a lot more than we deserve nowadays


Nick Barnes 05.12.09 at 8:15 am

Tracy W: how many monkeys do you want voting in your country’s parliament?

Fewer than at present, but I see no mechanism for getting there from here. The selection system we have pretty much guarantees monkeys, for reasons identified well by JoB. That is, it guarantees MPs who are either particularly well-connected or particularly good at electoral politics, neither of which is any indicator of honesty, discernment, or legislative skill.

Paying more will just get us highly-paid monkeys. See also banks.


Tracy W 05.12.09 at 8:18 am

Talleyrand, I am living on the same planet as you are. I presume you missed my example of Gandhi in comment 5.

And I am very curious as to what I said that made you think that I don’t believe that people choose between occupations based on factors other than salary. I listed the downsides of being a NZ MP. I’ve re-read my comments here and I can’t see a single place where I said that everyone only cares about salary in choosing occupations. Can you please tell me what I said that gave you the impression that I believed this?

Your claim about peanuts and monkeys seems to boil down to the idea that we should prefer to recruit people as MPs who value money over power relatively more than the people we currently have. I see no reason why this is should be the case.

Ummm, people with a mad lust for power are very scary?

Being an MP should be an intellectually demanding job (consider for example the number of different areas even a minimial state needs to cover – criminal law (what should the penalty be for murder, and how should that be relative to rape, what should the trade-off be between police abuse of power and protecting the public from the more intelligent criminals), civil law (should electronic signatures be acceptable and if so how?, what sort of IP should we have, if at all?), , environmental issues (eg climate change, how to stop fisheries collapsing), tax law (from the big questions of what should the income tax rates be to little ones like what should the depreciation allowance for biotech be?), foreign policy (what, if anything, should be done about Fiji?) etc. Any one of these topics are things that people can spend a life time exploring and debating, and yet MPs need to make legislation covering them all or for the more policy-minded matters, hold the Cabinet to account on them. Add in more government responsibilities like healthcare, benefits, education, etc and the knowledge needed to vote well or to ask the difficult questions of the governing party just goes up and up and up.
And it’s not merely knowing this stuff, it’s being able to communicate it, and sell other people on your vision of reforming fisheries before the fish all disappear. So for a good MP you’re looking for the combination of a smart intelligence and a really good teacher – and from my university education I know that the two are not necessarily synonymous.
This is demanding work, if done properly, perhaps it’s impossible to do well, or perhaps we could drastically improve the education system and everyone would be perfectly capable of doing it and there would be no reason for a wage premium for those who could. But at the moment, I can’t see that being a NZ MP is a massively attractive option for those who don’t have a mad power lust. Most people do balance off various job options, and if there’s serving your country, and getting to pour over a wide variety of areas, but on the other hand there’s the downside of party politics, and campaigning, and media attacks, making the life of an MP slightly more attractive to those who have the right combination of skills.

Of course it is entirely plausible that our selection method for MPs is so stuffed up that paying more wouldn’t improve quality at all. This is all speculative.

And I don’t know if paying more MPs would get us better MPs. I don’t have a framework for how we should pay MPs or other such jobs that don’t have a private sector equivalent. Apparently no one else does either.


Tracy W 05.12.09 at 10:00 am

JoB and Nick Barnes – good points. Your views match with my statements that “Of course I don’t know if paying more would in reality get us better quality MPs. ” and “Would we get any more competent MPs if we paid them more? – perhaps our MP selection process is totally stuffed up.” Although perhaps you are both somewhat more cynical about how MPs are selected than I am.

What do you think should be the framework for how we think about setting reimbursement for MPs and other government-only roles such as police officers and judges? What factors do you think should be taken into account? Or are you merely as confused as me?


JoB 05.12.09 at 11:42 am

Tracy, methinks the wages should be high enough to enable to forego any expense claims (and maybe they should not get a wage but a sum of money that allows them to pay for assistance) – that ensures independence (also from parties) and avoids any fraud. I also think (cue Blair and Clinton) that once having been in office there should be a cap on income afterwards. A cap so high it allows to be more than comfortable but low enough to ensure they can get the income – that should leave room enough if suitably worked out.

But whilst I think this would be better I do not think it will solve the monkey-problem. That un’ will only be solved by changing the context of pre-selection. On one hand you can go Platonic & elitist whilst on the other you can go popular & individualized … all of them have been tried, and all somehow failed – but imho: to require a degree to enable you to do politics seems (in Western democracies) far from a too far-fetched idea.


Tracy W 05.12.09 at 1:46 pm

Hmmm, on the expense claims issue, as Katherine says there is a difference in expenses between an MP covering a geographically-small seat in the capital city, and a MP covering a geographically-large seat remote from the capital. And in the NZ context, the list MPs who don’t have a specific electorate at all.

Anyway, what sort of living standards do you think an MP living only off their parliamentary salary should have? From my experience, living off a low income is easier if you have the time to do it – to visit 3 or 4 supermarkets each week for their loss-leaders, to stop by the farmer’s market, to cook from scratch, to catch the bus, to catch flights at a ridiculous time in the day, etc. But whether those living tasks are a worthwhile use of an MP’s time in an ideal world, versus time spent listening to constituents, researching solutions to overfishing, asking the difficult questions of the governing party, etc, is something I am inclined to say not. And we are no longer in a world where each MP has a wife at home to run the house, sometimes MPs are even wives and mothers themselves. Or solo mums or dads – even the best spouse can leave you suddenly solo by the nasty trick of dying.

I am also see some advantages to an PM being able to earn a large income once they leave their job – I want to reduce the incentives for a politician to remain in government, given that in many case they have some ability to do so by manipulating the electoral system (eg gerrymandering).

So by writing this I have identified two conflicting objectives that I have – 1. that the opportunity cost of a good MPs’ time strikes me as quite high, 2. that there shouldn’t be a serious financial incentive for PMs to stay in office. I suppose at least this is a decrease in my confusion.


Katherine 05.12.09 at 2:08 pm

Well, I had composed a long and brilliant comment yesterday but it got lost several times in the process of trying to submit it.

No, engels and Henri, I did not mean that only people who know politicians can have an opinion on the moral state of politics. But I think expressing an opinion on the personal trait of a large and diverse group of people on the basis of neither evidence nor experience is prejudicial.

I think an interesting measure is to look at comparative salaries of politicians in Europe and the US. Until 2009, MEPs received salaries that were identical to those of domestic members of parliament. This led to large inequalities within the European Parliament (eg Italian MEPs earned nearly 15 times as much as Bulgarian MEPs). The system is changing to become uniform – 7000 Euros per month. At the time it was voted for (in 2005), this meant a salary cut for British MEPs but of course exchange rates have cuased fluctuations.

US Congressmen/women get $174,000 pa.


JoB 05.12.09 at 2:56 pm

Tracy, the income should be large enough to trifle any discussions of time in supermakets and costs of transportation. Let me propose that MP’s (national level – I think that politics of more community dimensions are structurally different) have an allowance of 250 kEURO (or 500K when we want to get out of the debates of assistance budget) – that should settle anything & yes it’s unfair to those in outlying districts but, heh, nothing’s perfect (if necessary you make some formula based on the geographical distance to your place of being elected).

I wouldn’t want to guarantee a state-income after non-election – just cap the amount they will be entitled to earn (to avoid being corrupted in office by those who can buy them a jet after they’re out of office). But there should be at least one term after non-election that they get paid: if not – they’ll just be puppets of their respective parties.


Nick Barnes 05.12.09 at 3:34 pm

British MPs seem to have a fairly reasonable salary for the sort of job they do. It could be less, but probably not half what it is. It could be more, but probably not 50% more.

They should be able to claim expenses in broadly the same way as everyone else in paid employment: for expenses wholly, exclusively, and necessarily incurred in doing their job. And their expenses process should be entirely public.

An MP’s swimming pool, garden, or chandelier is not necessary for their job.

Quite possibly Parliament should have an office responsible for providing accommodation in London for MPs and lords attending their Houses. An accommodation block would be fine.


harry b 05.12.09 at 4:04 pm

I actually disagree about the accommodation block. Having all the out-of-London MPs living in one building is not a good idea. Unless Dennis Skinner is given complete control of the building.
And you didn’t mention the moat, which is obviously essential. I don’t know what I’d do without mine.


dsquared 05.12.09 at 4:05 pm

The Labour Party used to have a massive, seemingly inexhaustible supply of extremely talented, committed and intelligent people who nonetheless (probably correctly) did not regard themselves as definitely able to earn three times an MP’s salary, because they lacked the required university education and middle class mannerisms. They were called “the working class”. Does anyone know what happened to them?


dsquared 05.12.09 at 4:09 pm

or less facetiously than the above – I am not a fan of this theory of the reservation wage of MPs, or of the meritocratic (in the original Michael Young sense) implicit theory of social advancement. Perhaps we could link MPs’ salaries to the actual median achieved earnings of those of their number who exited the House at the previous election? (I choose the median rather than mean to stop the number being pushed about by people who leave the House with serious substance abuse problems at one end, and those who were transparently influence-peddling at the other).


harry b 05.12.09 at 4:25 pm

dsquared — that’s a good idea.

I’m very struck, though, by how unrepresentative Labour cabinets were, even in 1945-51, of the working class. (Attlee, Cripps, and Dalton leap to mind, Bevin and, sort of, Bevan, the notable exceptions). Bevan would be at Oxbridge if he were 20 now. (Bevin probably wouldn’t, and I hope he’d have seen that as the compliment it is).


Nick Barnes 05.12.09 at 5:17 pm

Certainly the MPs’ halls of residence ought to be under control of cross-party backbench committees. And there should be live public webcams in the corridors and stairwells. With sound.


Nick Barnes 05.12.09 at 5:17 pm

And Davina McCall.


Henri Vieuxtemps 05.12.09 at 6:45 pm

@65: I disagree that it’s prejudicial. They are not a diverse group of people, they all have something in common: they are all politicians. They’ve chosen this particular (highly unusual) career, and they have won in a series of ‘winner takes all’ competitions against other wannabe politicians. That’s a pattern, and, I believe, it’s not unreasonable to associate it with a trait of personality.

Will you agree that people who choose a military career are different from those who become professional poets?


engels 05.12.09 at 7:39 pm

DWP: We’re targeting benefit thieves with a full range of penalties

Benefit thieves – we’re closing in. And when we catch you, you face:

* having to pay all the money back and sometimes more than you stole
* prosecution
* a criminal record
* a fine
* having your home and possessions taken away
* and even a prison sentence.

Once we have completed all our investigations you will be asked to attend a taped interview under caution. And the stigma of benefit fraud is not something you can keep to yourself. There’s no hiding the shame from your family, your friends or your neighbours.


Dave Weeden 05.12.09 at 9:03 pm

This may sound really perverse, but politicians are very public figures and are scrutinised by the media (at least the media local to their constituencies). All politicians get interviewed at some time or another – and slap me down if I’m making this up, – a standard interview question (to a tyro MP anyway) is, “Why did you enter politics?” Now I’ve cleared my throat as it were, can anyone think of a politician who said, “For the money”? Does this mean a) politicians lie or b) people go into politics for reasons other than material advancement? Discuss. (OK you already have. Carry on.)

Engels: spot on.


Righteous Bubba 05.12.09 at 9:05 pm

Engels: spot on.



harry b 05.12.09 at 9:07 pm

I thought the reason people went into politics was so that they could spend less time with their families. The reverse is always why they leave politics.


JoB 05.13.09 at 6:39 am

No, they leave because they ‘just can’t stand the hipocrisy of it all anymore’ …


Katherine 05.13.09 at 10:05 am

Well, Henri, I’m afraid we going to have continue to disagree, because the politicians I have known have been a diverse group of people. I am aware that personal knowledge is necessarily anecdotal, but I don’t see you offering any evidence for your view.

Teachers all go through the same, or similar, training process, but would you claim they are not diverse? Not in the sense that soldiers are different from poets, perhaps. But not the same in the way you initially labelled all politicans.


Henri Vieuxtemps 05.13.09 at 3:40 pm

A group of people can be diverse in the usual sense (race, gender, social class), but nevertheless have a common personal trait or traits – be ambitious, for example, or emotional, or ruthless, or empathetic, or dishonest.

I suppose the teachers as a group are probably more empathetic, no? How do they go through a similar training process, what does it mean?


Katherine 05.14.09 at 10:27 am

So they are diverse, but not in the specific way you referred to in your first comment. You do rather seem to be moving the goalposts Henri. Tell me again what actual evidence you have for your assertion?

Teachers all go through the PGCE training year in the UK. They are thus trained in the same way. This does not make them more empathetic than some random group that you haven’t specified. I suppose they are probably more empathetic as a group than sociopaths, but then most people are.

Comments on this entry are closed.