December 14, 2005Public Policy

Choosing the better outrage

Indian legislators need a wage hike

This is an archived blog post from The Acorn.

Cobrapost and Aaj Tak have demonstrated, yet again, how hidden-camera journalism can be employed to deliver sensational results. In strictly technical terms, the information content in the latest exposé is negligible. Most Indians will hardly be surprised that their politicians accept bribes. On the contrary, a sting operation that reveals an upright legislator throwing the bribing journalist out of the room would have contained more information, and perhaps have been more sensational.

The reason why Cobrapost’s sting operation has become sensational is because of the political controversy it has created — by getting some lawmakers expelled from their parties, and giving an opportunity for the relieved remainder to do a sanctimonious Captain Renault. In the short term, MPs will be extremely careful whom they take money from. But Operation Duryodhana will certainly not result in the end of corruption at the heart of Indian democracy.

That is because politicians, like everyone else, respond to incentives. For now, and perhaps for the next few years, they will have a disincentive to accept money from strangers. But the underlying incentives that cause them to be corrupt remain unchanged. Getting a party ticket and running a successful campaign is not cheap. Re-election is not guaranteed and coalition governments run the risk of not completing their five-year terms. Their salaries and allowances do not adequately cover the costs of running a campaign and representing a constituency. The upfront investment is huge and the period in which to generate returns is short. Official compensation is inadequate. The Indian parliamentarian is no different from the traffic policeman — the official remuneration they receive is far below the market value of the services they provide.

Beyond outrage, ombudsmen, rules of behaviour, penalties and sanctimony the only way to change the MPs’ behaviour is to change their incentives. Official wages, along with perks and the warm fuzzy feeling of doing one’s duty for the good of the nation are not sufficient to keep them away from seeking ways to supplement their income’. The disincentives — like shame, prosecution and now an exposé on prime-time television — are neither powerful nor long-term. Legislation to limit campaign expenditure sounds nice, but is not practical. The real solution is more pay. Perhaps a lot more pay.

More pay, of course, sounds outrageous. But it is far better to be outraged by highly-paid politicians than by highly corrupt ones.

Update: There was, apparently, an upright MP who refused the moolah. But they’re not telling who.

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