There was a very odd, and in many ways disturbing moment at Wednesday evening’s debate between New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo (D) and his Democratic primary challenger, Cynthia Nixon.
“Considering that you embrace what’s known as ‘democratic socialism,'” moderator Maurice DuBois asked Nixon, “will you forgo the governor’s salary of $179,000 and turn it back to the state” if elected?
— jordan (@JordanUhl) August 29, 2018
There’s so much wrong with this question that it is hard to know where to begin. Among other things, if Mr. DuBois thinks that democratic socialists believe that workers should not be compensated for their labor, he might want to take a remedial political science course.
But DuBois’ question is also insidious. It undermines one of the most important reforms written into the Constitution by the framers themselves. And it invites a future where America is ruled by an aristocratic elite.
The Constitution provides that, at least at the federal level, high public officials shall receive “a compensation” for their work as president, members of Congress, or federal judges. The reason for this is very simple. If elected officials are not paid a salary, only independently wealthy aristocrats will be able to serve in high office.
Indeed, as Brown University historian Gordon Wood documents in his Pulitzer Prize-winning work The Radicalism of the American Revolution, this question of whether public officials should be paid was hotly contested by the framers themselves. And their decision to write salaries for high officials into the Constitution marked an important turning point in America’s understanding of who should govern.
The “classical republican” view, Wood writes, was that public officials should seek their office out of a desire to serve, not out of a more venal desire for money. As Benjamin Franklin, who defended this classical republican view, wrote near the end of his life, “the pleasure of doing good & serving their Country and the respect such conduct entitles them to, are sufficient motives with some minds to give up a great portion of their time to the Public, without the mean inducement of pecuniary satisfaction.”
By this point in his life, Franklin was a rich author and former newspaper publisher who could afford to work for free.
Thomas Jefferson, himself a wealthy slave owner, had similar views. “In a virtuous government,” according to Jefferson, “public offices are, what they should be, burthens to those appointed to them, which it would be wrong to decline, though foreseen to bring with them intense labor, and great private loss.”
Other key figures held a more modern view. John Adams, for example, warned that if “you make it law that no man should hold an office who had not a private income sufficient for the subsistence and prospects of himself and family,” then “all offices would be monopolized by the rich, the poor and the middling ranks would be excluded, and an aristocratic despotism would immediately follow.”
Adams’ view prevailed. The drafters of the Constitution ultimately agreed that the classical republican view risked creating a nation ruled by wealthy aristocrats.
The decision to pay elected officials, Wood writes, “was radical for the age” — members of the British parliament were not paid salaries until 1911. But our decision to allow lawmakers and other high officials to provide for themselves while serving in office ensured that the power to govern would not be limited to the most well-off Americans.
Cynthia Nixon, it should be noted, was a successful actress before entering politics and is quite wealthy. She has no need for the $179,000 annual salary she will receive if she is elected governor. That probably helps explain why she turned the money down.
But if we establish a norm that public officials should reject their salaries, or reward wealthy office-seekers who promise to forego pay, then we risk living in the kind of nation that John Adams warned us about. As a candidate, rich businessman Donald Trump promised to donate his entire presidential salary if elected. 2012 Republican candidate Mitt Romney, who is also extraordinarily wealthy, said he would have probably donated his salary if he had won as well.
If we want to live in a world where only people like Trump and Romney get to rule, one of the best ways to get there would be to pressure elected officials to give up their pay.