Opinion: Benjamin Franklin, The First American

POSTED: 02/13/14 12:08 PM

The year is 1786 and the First American, Benjamin Franklin is contemplating how the executive council of Pennsylvania ought to be paid. Almost 230 years later, his thoughts are still valuable.

First of all, Franklin said, the executive should not be paid at all, except for expenses. “There are two passions which have a powerful  influence on the affairs of men,” H.W. Brands quotes Franklin in his riveting biography. “Therese are ambition and avarice (greed – ed.): the love of power and the love of money. Separately, each of these has great force in prompting men to action; but when united in view of the same object, they have in many kinds the most violent effects. Place before such men a post of honor that shall be at the same time a place of profit, and they will move heaven and earth to obtain it.”

Franklin had seen with his own eyes the destructive influence of these dynamics on politics in Great Britain. He did not expect that limiting salaries would prevent the evils he foresaw, brands notes: “Though we may set out in the beginning with moderate salaries, we shall find that such will not be of long continuance. Reasons will never be wanting for proposed augmentations. And there will always be a party for giving more to the rulers.”

In that sense, Franklin had no high opinion of the ruling class: “There is scarce a king in a hundred who would not, if he could, follow the example of the Pharaoh: get first all the people’s money, then all their lands, and then make them and their children servants forever.”

To those who considered his idea of non-payment utopian, Franklin cited examples from English counties where the office of high sheriff paid nothing at all. On the contrary, the job actually cost its holder money.”

Franklin also referred to George Washington who led the American army for eight years without ever receiving – or demanding – a salary. What he did not say was that Washington was so well off to begin with that he could afford to serve his country for free.

Of course, the convention where Franklin presented this proposal, treated the idea with respect. But there was no debate and the convention conveniently postponed the issue for the consideration of its members.

We are now more than two centuries down the line and the pay for politicians is still a bone of contention. The electorate will grumble about this forever, but nothing will ever change, certainly not in St. Maarten, where the Parliament just snubbed an initiative to cut its own salaries.

Are our parliamentarians overpaid? Absolutely. That is why aspiring candidates are trampling the doors of party leaders in attempts to get into their good graces – and on their coveted list of candidates. At the end of the rainbow, if they would be so lucky, waits a job with a $125,000 salary plus generous fringe benefits. That has become the main motivator for people to enter politics – and it is not at all good news for the future of the country. In that sense, Benjamin Franklin had a very valid point – but nobody wants to hear about it.

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