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This comment says that

One of the de facto laws of compensation in a bureaucracy is that nobody can get paid more than the guys at the top

Why is that? Is it because of tradition, or is there some concrete reason for it?

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    It's normal that people are not paid more than their bosses. Why would you expect that to be different in public service? – DJClayworth Apr 21 at 13:32
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    @DJClayworth, two reasons. 1) senior civil servants often have decades of experience in their field, as opposed to some elected heads of state who have zero experience in running a country. 2) Performance related pay, many people in govt service do very good jobs with what they have available, while many elected members of govt do terribly, especially compared to what they have promised to get into office. – GeoffAtkins Apr 21 at 13:35
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    @DJClayworth can you provide proof that people getting payed less than their bosses? In my experience at least I have often seen people getting payed more than their bosses in both small and big businesses. Also GeoffAtkins makes a good point. – Ekadh Singh Apr 21 at 13:35
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    @DJClayworth Practical example, a lot of experienced senior developers will earn more than their project managers – David Mulder Apr 22 at 11:04
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    It is not true. The President of the United States is not the highest paid federal worker (nor the second highest paid federal worker). It is true that he is paid significantly more than the average federal worker. The same is true without exception for all the governors. My city has some very well paid city employees, but no one could live on the mayor's salary. – emory Apr 22 at 15:20
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The leader of a community stands as a reflection of the community. This isn't just about heads of state: every leader from tribal chiefs and village mayors up knows that when outsiders look at them as individuals, they are evaluating the community as a whole. Consider what it would say about the US if the President met with foreign dignitaries wearing a Men's Warehouse suit and shoes from Sketchers. Not that there's anything wrong with the Men's Warehouse or Sketchers, but those dignitaries would think "How badly off must the US be that this is the best their President can do?"

Nations, prefectures, states, parishes, municipalities, etc. pay their leaders well (and provide them with stately residences and mansions, limousines, pomp and circumstances, and other formal luxuries) because the community wants their head representative to be respected and to carry an imposing air of dignity, because that will reflect on the community as a whole. When the leader reflects a powerful, respectable, dignified community, that translates to trade and commerce, attracting new business, warding off threats, negotiating new deals, a general sense of prosperous security... Paying a leader well isn't generosity; it's in the community interest.

Of course, some leaders let it go to their heads and abuse the privilege, becoming more concerned with their own (personal) status and power than with the status and power of the community as a whole — e.g., Erdogan and his new presidential palace — but we shouldn't neglect the principle because of its too-frequent abuses.

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    What prevents governments from providing every "visible wealth" (e.g: clothing, and whatever formal luxuries you described in your answer) and paying them 800$/month for the work? – Rafalon Apr 22 at 10:45
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    @Rafalon The idea behind paying goog wages to elected politicians is that, if they weren't well paid only people who does not have to worry about money would be interested in becoming politicians. So is, politicians would come from the richest families of the country. Even with well-paid positions it happens nevertheless. – Rekesoft Apr 22 at 11:17
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    It's much easier to bribe an official who struggles with paying for food than one who doesn't. You want public servants to feel they have something to lose when the accept bribes and are found out. – Guntram Blohm Apr 22 at 11:28
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    Anyway I said 800 but could have said any amount, the meaning is "if you already provide everything (and it's already almost the case for most governments), then you don't need to pay much in addition for the leader to be comfortable in his daily life" – Rafalon Apr 22 at 12:01
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    @TedWrigley: I don't think it's an aristocracy when it's temporary, is it? – Mooing Duck Apr 22 at 21:52
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This is not true, in a universal sense.

In general it's true that, in government as in other fields, the higher up you rise, the higher your salary is, but what's much more important is the field you're in, and it's relative value (to the state/country) and competitiveness.

If you look at US States, for example, you'll see that the Governor is almost never among the highest paid public employees.

In Alaska, the Governor makes $145,000/yr, less than half of the top 3 highest paid public employees: The Executive director of the Department of Revenue ($371k), a forensic psychiatrist for the Department of Corrections ($367k) and an investment officer for the Department of Revenue ($350k).

In California, the Governor makes $220,000/yr, less than the $342,974/yr that the Mayor of San Francisco makes. The Mayor, in turn, makes less than 9 other city employees such as chief investment officer for the San Francisco Employees' Retirement System ($527k). All these salaries, though, are dwarfed by the salaries of even assistant coaches for the UC football teams: Chip Kelly, the head coach, makes $3.5 million per year, the offensive coordinator makes $700k per season, the assistant head coach makes $500k, while the tight end coach makes $450k.

In Delaware, the highest paid public employee is the Thoroughbred Racing Commission doctor of veterinary medicine, at $477k, compared to $171k for the Governor.

I won't go through every state, but the common top earners are sports coaches, university presidents, employees at state/city pension and investment funds, and leaders of state university medical schools. The general theme is that they have specific skills that would grant them high salaries in the private sector.


Another exception is overtime eligible employees, like police officers, who can use large amounts of overtime to earn much higher salaries than their bosses. In Seattle, for example, the police chief makes $285k per year. Thanks to overtime, however, that doesn't even make it into the top-10 highest salaries in the department. In 2019, the top paid SPD employee was a Patrol Officer (not even a Sergeant or Lieutenant), who made $414,543

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    Perhaps a better example: The US President's salary is $400K/year. Google says Anthony Fauci makes $500K. (Though of course the President gets free room & board :-)) – jamesqf Apr 21 at 16:03
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    @jamesqf That is not exactly true as there are plenty of expenses that the president has while in office such as food for the family when it is not for a state event. – Joe W Apr 21 at 17:08
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    Also worth noting that all of those government employees ultimately report to a city council, a state or federal legislature, or a board of directors of some kind that sets their salaries. Members of that legislative or governing board almost always make less than the top operational employees. – ohwilleke Apr 21 at 17:14
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    Many state university medical professors (eg. surgery) make mid 6-figures, well more than most governors or even presidents. – dandavis Apr 21 at 18:17
  • @jamesqf Yet I doubt Fauci lives in a mansion with servants at his beck and call. He also makes more salary than members of Congress, but does he have "franking privilege"? :) – Barmar Apr 22 at 15:01
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We want our government leaders, whether politicians or public servants, to be able to give peak performance in their roles. Good pay does not guarantee this, but it does help reduce many concerns:

  • We want them and their families to be able to afford good health care, so that they remain healthy, do not stress about their family members' health, and do not have to take leave to care for them. Of course accidents and unexpected illnesses can happen to anyone, but we don't want preventable health problems from happening.
  • We don't want our leaders to be tired from long commutes. The cost of living in many cities is expensive, but we want our leaders to be able to live where decisions need to be made rather than spending hours each day travelling from a distant suburb. (Of course it would be good for all of us if governments also strategically aimed to decentralise various government agencies and reduce sprawl.)
  • We want our leaders, particular public servants who don't campaign, to genuinely come from the top of their field. If the best doctors, lawyers, educators, administrators, etc can all find well-paying, fulfilling jobs with great work environments elsewhere then we'll be left with lower-tier candidates. Of course some of the best will never be enticed when wealth-building is their goal. But for those who don't, for whom serving the people is an intangible benefit, when they consider all the roles they could take, we want our government roles to be competitive, both in remuneration, as well as work environment. We don't want those to take the roles to be resentful that they didn't choose to work in a university or something else instead, we want them to be happy with the role they chose so that they can continue governing well for us. For potential politicians, the road ahead of them is gruelling, often humiliating, and they and their families are likely to feel attacked from many sides. No wonder that many people would feel that the pay of any politician could never compensate them for gauntlet of campaigning and ruling.
  • Jörg W Mittag reminded me that one of the big purposes historically for paying government workers well is that we want them to be financially stable to discourage corruption attempts. Obviously this can't prevent all corruption, but if government workers are paid well then they shouldn't ever be in the situation when they feel they must accept bribes. (Of course sometimes people will get into gambling debts etc, but we can aim to make it very uncommon.)
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    In Germany, the top-most argument is actually that we want people in a position of power to be financially independent of any third party. Of course, there is still corruption, but at least in Germany, corruption is BIG NEWS™️ because it is relatively rare. If you don't pay people enough for a living, they are pretty much required to depend on corruption … it's not like they can just take a job, because they already have a full-time one. – Jörg W Mittag Apr 22 at 6:59
  • @JörgWMittag Oh yes, freedom from corruption is a great point. I hadn't thought of it because in theory my country is largely free from corruption now... though I'm sure it's still happening a lot. – curiousdannii Apr 22 at 9:06
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    The first 2 things apply to everyone, not just leaders! – user253751 Apr 22 at 9:11
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Speculation aside, for the Netherlands we can answer this more directly. That's because the de facto law is also a de jure law. The "Wet Normering Topinkomens (WNT)", better known as The "Balkenende Norm" after the Prime Minister at the time, states that no civil servant can earn more than the Prime Minister.

The law was introduced in reaction to public outcry over excessive salaries paid to senior civil servants; the PM's salary was chosen as the norm because it was considered high, but still reasonable. It also means the norm is adjusted over time as the PM's salary changes.

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    Interesting. That seems like it could lead to a lot of problems in hiring qualified candidates for more specialized positions where market salaries are generally higher than what the PM might make. Medicine and engineering especially come to mind. – reirab Apr 23 at 16:26
  • @reirab: As an engineer, I could only wish the market salaries were at those levels. The current cap is just a shade over 200K. Medicine pays better, true. I guess that explains the horrendous handling of the Corona pandemic by the government, where doctors have been publicly wondering what the government thinks it's doing. – MSalters Apr 23 at 16:55
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The slightly sarcastic answer is that people at the top (not just in government) are paid the most because they are the ones who decide upon everyone's payment.

In politics, that is not entirely true given that it is often parliament that decides the government and head of state salaries. However, parliament and government are not distinct, either the same parties run in both (like the USA) or the government is made up of members of parliament anyway (most European countries).

For other organisations, such as an administration, a company or institute, salaries are typically decided by someone one or two levels above, and people have a tendency to give those below them a lower salary as well - those words (below and lower) are not a coincidence, that's how the human mind works (a great book: "Metaphors to live by"). I would go so far to say that it's simply an artefact of us considering higher positions to be - well, higher. If we see hierarchy as a pyramid, with upwards instead of, say, sideways, then maybe we would not have the mental picture that salaries also have to be higher.

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The quote is about bureaucracy, while the original title referred to "government." I've edited the title to say government/bureaucracy, because these are not the same thing. The person at the top of the government would be someone like the president of the US or the governor of a state. The top of a bureaucracy consists of career civil servants.

The career civil servants at the top of a bureaucracy get paid the most simply because there is a defined system of pay grades for civil servants. I would imagine that the original reason for the defined pay grades was that it would reduce possibilities of corruption. You might be able to get a job as a postmaster because you were friends with a state legislator, but at least you couldn't trade on that connection to get paid more than normal.

I don't think it's necessarily true that people at the top of government are paid the most. Historically, in the US, state legislators were often expected to be part-time citizen-legislators, and in many cases they were paid nothing at all.

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  • Thank you for editing that, I didn’t realize that their was a difference between government and bureaucracy. – Ekadh Singh Apr 22 at 13:27
  • WRT state legislators, it's not just historically that they were expected to be part time. Most states have part time legislatures today. – jamesqf Apr 22 at 15:24
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People will not take on more work and more responsibility unless they perceive some incentive to do so. Providing a straightforward monetary incentive helps to counteract other incentives people might have, like enjoying power for its own sake, or wanting more influence because it gives them access to bigger bribes.

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  • This answer presupposes that ranking positions are more work, (but some are less work), and have more responsibility, (not always -- some ranking officials operate by, and hide behind, algorithms and experts, which reduces the need for thought, and furnishes scapegoats to blame when things go wrong). – agc Apr 25 at 3:51
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Adding to the other answers, I think a chief reason is responsibility. If something goes wrong, it's not the army grunts who each carried out a part of the failing policy, but the top bureaucrat or government official whose head is on the chopping block. A higher pay remunerates this higher level of responsibility.

Of course, this is the theory. In practice, the higher-ups all too often evade their responsibility, while still cashing their check.

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The other answers are well and good, but here's a more cynical anti-answer:

Higher ranks, no matter how vacuous or incompetent, are paid more the better to make it appear, by circular reasoning, as though they were necessarily worth more. This allows advocates to argue that bribery and corruption are reduced because the higher ranks are affluent, and that affluence selects, (these advocates claim), for a natural meritocracy of "the best and the brightest".

To the contrary:

  • Greed being boundless, higher pay might select for higher greed.

  • Vanity is also boundless, and pomp and status might select for pols with "little man complexes" who are addicted to pomp.

  • Corrupt sponsors of a politician may not be able to rely on bribery once their sponsored politician is affluent, but they can always depend on blackmail. Corrupt sponsors might prefer a relatively perverse or even criminal politician whom they can ruin in an instant with a photograph or film, and may therefore be relied on to faithfully and fearfully serve their agenda. It's useful to craft a virtuous even crusading public image for such a criminal politician, who should be made to seem like a living ideal of civic meritocracy.

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