Legislators sometimes raise their own pay while claiming that it helps them do a better job and attracts better candidates. Sometimes the pay raises are justified with seemingly scientific claims. What sort of scientific evidence exists that higher salaries make for better politicians in high offices?

Also the corollary, what evidence exists that low salaries make for worse politicians in high offices?

And if any, what's the most commonly cited evidence used by advocates, in editorials, columns, etc?

For this question it's not necessary that any of the pay-raise science be good, compelling, or even honest, just that its presentation be scientific, and it either is, or is intended to be, used to support pay raises for pols. This makes the question more answerable, since it's possible there's no compelling evidence, (but there might be non-compelling evidence).

Notes: I'm not asking what theories support or underpin the notion, nor which schools or professional groups endorse such theories, nor for advocacy (or condemnation) of pay raises.

Some comments have assumed that at least one definition of "better" would be necessary to answer this. Such definitions would vary according to the theory cited, but this Q is not about theory.

  • 7
    The idea for the question is good, but how do you define "better" objectively? You have to propose narrower, objective metric
    – user4012
    Dec 7, 2016 at 2:08
  • 2
    I'm not sure how you'd even measure this specifically. That said, I believe there are studies out there that increased salaries--to a point--do attract talent.
    – user1530
    Dec 7, 2016 at 5:08
  • 1
    what evidence exists that low salaries make for worse politicians in high offices Low salaries means that either the politicians can only be rich people (=less representativity) or people who will benefit in some other ways of their position (=corrupt).
    – SJuan76
    Dec 7, 2016 at 15:17
  • Note that “attract better candidates” and “make for better politicians” is not quite the same thing. Salaries can also have an effect on a person's performance in different ways.
    – Relaxed
    Dec 7, 2016 at 20:54
  • 3
    New Hampshire only pays representatives $100 per year. It's written into their constitution. Here is a ranking of corruption among 50 states. usatoday.com/story/news/2015/11/09/…
    – Chloe
    Jan 25, 2017 at 3:08

2 Answers 2


It is difficult to provide exact evidence because there is hardly any agreement on what being a "better" politician means. If by "better" one means those with "higher moral ground", well, there is some limited evidence that shows higher salaries reduce corruption among government officials (e.g. see Van Rijckeghem & Weder (2001)). However, it is difficult to conclude whether this is because more "better" candidates chose to become politicians, or because the incentives of those in office change, and thus they alter their behavior. In the first case, we do have different people enter the office, in the latter - these are the same people.

The second way to view "better" would be to use the word "capable". But again, how do we define capability? One way to do it is to look at the level of education. You may look at the paper by Kotakorpi & Poutvaara (2011) which finds evidence that higher pay increases the average level of education among females MPs in Finland, but finds no such effect among males.

A third way would be to define "better" as more likely to do what the voters want them to do. The paper by Besley, T. (2004) finds some weak evidence that the pay of US governors is correlated with congruence between voters' and the governor's ideology.

The paper by Gagliarducci, S. and Nannicini, T. (2013) also finds evidence that a better pay of Italian mayors attracts more educated candidates and that the better-paid mayors are more likely to size down local governments. Overall, there seems to be evidence that higher pay does make "better" politicians, but the evidence is not very strong and it doesn't tell whether the higher pay will "pay for itself".


Besley, T. (2004), PAYING POLITICIANS: THEORY AND EVIDENCE. Journal of the European Economic Association, 2: 193–215.

Gagliarducci, S. and Nannicini, T. (2013), DO BETTER PAID POLITICIANS PERFORM BETTER? DISENTANGLING INCENTIVES FROM SELECTION. Journal of the European Economic Association, 11: 369–398.

Kaisa Kotakorpi, Panu Poutvaara, Pay for politicians and candidate selection: An empirical analysis, Journal of Public Economics, Volume 95, Issues 7–8, August 2011, Pages 877-885

Caroline Van Rijckeghem, Beatrice Weder, Bureaucratic corruption and the rate of temptation: do wages in the civil service affect corruption, and by how much?, Journal of Development Economics, Volume 65, Issue 2, August 2001, Pages 307-331

  • Each of those "better"s seem to be instances of the streetlight effect, wherein a researcher settles for irrelevant but countable results. "Higher moral ground" and "less corrupt" allows neither for productive rascal politicians, nor destructive pols free of hypocrisy and personal taint. "Education level" is credentialism, and would make George W. Bush a better President than Abraham Lincoln. "What the voters want" is unreliable, as the wants of a people can be ably contorted by propaganda experts.
    – agc
    Dec 12, 2016 at 6:31
  • I read the first two papers this afternon (Besley and Gagliarducci/Nannicini). In both cases the samples are aligned with their theories, and the Gagliarducci paper does a decent job laying out their methodology. Both are entirely relevant. Dec 12, 2016 at 22:16
  • agc, while I appreciate your point, I do not entirely agree. First of all, as I mentioned, it is not clear to me what a "better" politician means. If you could define it, that would make things easier.
    – Paul
    Dec 13, 2016 at 4:26
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    @agc, the thing is - if you cannot provide a definition - than perhaps you should first ask - what makes a politician "better"? I am not here to make an opinion on whether politicians SHOULD be paid better. You asked for evidence of whether paying more MAKES them better. Since you seem to have an opinion on what is not "better", take a complement of that and tell us what is. Otherwise this discussion has no point. As I mentioned earlier, this is almost surely going to be a normative metric. For example, being a less corrupt politician DOES make a politician better for many.
    – Paul
    Dec 16, 2016 at 1:49
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    I think in a representative democracy, the best objective metric is how well their constituents feel they represent them. Not just people who voted but people eligible to vote. How well does the politician represent their constituents? Does the politician have a high favorability rating? The problem is we probably don't have very good historical metrics for this, but this is what we need to measure. Not just for people who vote, but for people who are eligible to vote.
    – J Doe
    Jan 26, 2017 at 18:49

The question is vague. I am not criticizing the question. It's a good question. But as other answers have pointed out, while the definition of high salary is clear, the definition of better politician is not.

That being said, everything is vague. If we want to find samples where high salary improves quality of government services, I would look to Singapore.

Lee Kwan Yew raise salaries of top government officials.

Singapore, is well governed.


That is the speech.

The result works. The reasoning is also reasonable.

There is a quora question and answer that explain this very clearly https://www.quora.com/Why-is-the-salary-of-Singapores-Prime-Minister-so-high-Considering-U-S-President-Barack-Obamas-base-salary-is-400-000-and-considering-Obama-governs-a-country-that-is-more-than-50-times-more-populous-than-Singapore-isnt-a-1-7m-salary-absurd

Look at CEO's and managers' salary in US. You don't pay them peanuts. If you offer peanuts, those who come to work for you will be assholes.

By offering CEO's stock options and bonuses businesses properly align the CEO's interests with the businesses goal.

So it seems that the 2 important factors are 1. Large compensation to attract people that deserve it 2. Proper alignments between CEO's/politicians' income and the corporation/the state's interests.

The problem with politic is that unlike in corporation, the state's goal is not clear. Hence properly aligning politicians salary with interest of the state may be not clear to most "stakeholders" of the state, such as voters.

It is possible that politicians simply raise their salary because they want to be richer and not because it attracts better candidate.

In fact, why not go all the way? Why not turn prime ministers into emperors with palaces and harem. That should "attract" the best right?

It turns out, having emperors with ridiculously high salary and "benefits" leads to certain conflict of interests with the people. We got constant welfare for dynasties after dynasties in pretty much all over the world till democracy. If the pay is too high, everyone wants to get the top job.

Most countries pick the opposite strategies. They offer peanuts for their politicians. What happen is they got monkeys.

Why would guys, like Bill Gates, would want to work as governor in Indonesia. Not only that the salary is low, you can go to jail due to bigot mob. Needless to say corruption was rampant in Indonesia.


Is this evidence a slam dunk evidence? I do not know.

If I look at China, for example, I am quite confused my self.

Corruption is low. However, some governors are jailed for accepting $200k bribe, I've heard. And that does not make sense to me at all. Why would a governor that oversee trillions of dollars worth of economy get bribed by a mere $200k. Well, it turns out that the governor's salary is only $20k.

That being said, China is a reasonably well governed country despite low salary for its politburo.

I think the issue is politicians' "real income" is not ever really cheap. Suharto may have low salary but he makes billions of dollars due to various rent seeking.

I would say, salaries of politicians influence the quality of their services in complex ways. I would suggest that salary should be in line with salary in private sectors with reasonably good candidate.

Singaporean government seems to be unique. Their salary is about right. I read an article where someone quite their private sector job with $3 million salary with a $500k job in government sector. So we have it both ways it seems. We got a good guy "that can earn $3 million in private sector" and is obviously motivated reasonably by "devotion".

  • I think an interesting aspect is that Singapore's ministers receive a bonus if they meet specific targets based on GDP growth etc.
    – Cliff
    Aug 23, 2018 at 8:06
  • This is not my idea, this is what Singapore is already doing: mustsharenews.com/minister-salary-bonus
    – Cliff
    Aug 23, 2018 at 8:29

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