Rasmus T. Pedersen and Lene Holm Pedersen

Citizens really don’t want their politicians to receive a high salary. In 1816, protesters burned members of the US Congress in effigy after the congress members had enacted a pay raise for themselves, and two centuries later, studies across numerous countries continue to show that vast majorities in all of these countries would like politicians to receive substantially lower salaries than they currently do.

Adapted from an article in Political Studies.

Citizens really don’t want their politicians to receive a high salary. In 1816, protesters burned members of the US Congress in effigy after the congress members had enacted a pay raise for themselves, and two centuries later, studies across numerous countries continue to show that vast majorities in all of these countries would like politicians to receive substantially lower salaries than they currently do.

Because aversion to high pay for politicians is so widespread across place and time, it may not appear to be much of a puzzle in search of an answer. However, in our recently published article in Political Studies, we make the case that citizens’ attitudes regarding pay for politicians deserves more scholarly attention. After all, why wouldn’t people want to pay a high salary to our politicians, seeing as these politicians are tasked with such important responsibilities? Using a survey experiment with more than 2,000 Danish citizens, we therefore investigated how people respond to different scenarios on politicians’ salary, and we investigated how individual differences among citizens affect their attitude on this issue

Unsurprisingly, we found that Danes, just like citizens in other countries, like the idea of decreasing the salary of politicians, while they strongly dislike the idea of increasing their salaries.

Is this aversion to increased salary for the politicians just an example of people disliking income inequality? No, not according to the results from our study. While left-leaning citizens are generally against large income inequalities and right-leaning citizens generally more ok with income inequality, citizens across the political left-right spectrum are, by and large, in agreement when it comes to the salaries of politicians. While people on the left were slightly stronger supporters of a proposal to decrease the salaries than people on the right, this differences was small, and both groups generally really liked the proposal. Conversely, a proposal to increase the salaries of politicians were equally unpopular among the left and the right.

Instead, people’s attitudes on salaries for politicians are closely connected to their trust towards politicians. People with a low level of trust towards politicians are strongly in favor of decreasing their pay and strongly against increasing their pay. In contrast, people with high levels of trust towards the politicians are only slightly in favor of decreased salaries for politicians, and many of them are actually ok with increases in the salaries of politicians.

Seeing as there is this strong connection between the citizens’ views on the salaries of politicians and the citizens’ trust towards them, what, then, can the politicians do?

First, politicians can take the matter out of their own hands. While politicians in most countries have the prerogative of setting their own salaries, politicians in some countries have chosen—sometimes following scandals—to delegate decisions on their pay to independent agencies. This is for example the case in Great Britain, where politicians’ salaries are set by the Independent Parliamentary Standards Authority, in Sweden where the task has been delegated to Riksdagens arvodesnämnd, and in Denmark, where the task was temporarily delegated to an independent commission in 2014. However, while such delegation seems to lessen opposition to pay raises for politicians a bit, our results show that the Danes are still staunchly opposed to pay rasies for politicians – perhaps because people have a hard time believing that independent agencies are truly independent when they suggest pay raises for politicians.

Second, politicians that are hoping to increase citizens’ generally low levels of trust toward them, might be tempted do decrease their own wages in order to increase the publics trust in them. However, while this has been suggested as a remedy to the low trust in politicians, our study found no positive effects on citizens trust towards politicians when they were presented with proposal to decrease their salaries. This could perhaps be explained by the notion that talk is cheap, since respondents in our experiment were exposed to proposals regarding changes in politicians’ pay rather than actual changes in politicians’ pay. This is a limitation of our study, and citizens might react differently to actual changes in pay initiated by current politicians with a more obvious self-interest in pay levels. However, we tend to suspect that even such actual changes in politicians pay might be interpreted with the same level of skepticism and reliance on prior perceptions of politicians as our respondents seemed to do. While pay raises confirm perceptions of self-interested politicians, people seem loathe to interpret decreases in politicians pay as genuine selflessness on behalf of the politicians. In so far as that is the case, this suggests that changes in politicians’ pay will not have an effect on people’s trust in politicians. Thus, the relationship between trust and politicians pay may very well be a one-way street: People with low trust towards politicians clearly want politicians to make less than they currently do, but lowering the salaries of politicians—or delegating such decision to independent entities—does not seem to abate the distrust towards them.

 

Rasmus T. Pedersen is Senior Researcher at The Danish Center for Social Science Research (VIVE). His main research areas are political behavior and psychology, public opinion, heuristics, biases, and framing, and his research has previously been published in journal such as Political Psychology, Political Communication, Journal of Experimental Political Studies and International Journal of Public Opinion Research.

 

Lene Holm Pedersen is Professor in public management at University of Copenhagen, Department of Political Science, and a director of research at The Danish Center for Social Science Research (VIVE). As a social scientist expert on public policy and management, she conducts research on steering, motivation, and performance in the public sector.

Photo by UK Parliament.