“We need higher salaries so we’re not tempted to take bribes.”
This is appealing, but the idea that we can fight corruption by paying government employees more is not substantiated. In fact, anecdotal evidence and the best research currently available suggest that increasing government salaries has no effect on bribe-taking behavior.
A few months ago I started a discussion in one of the professional groups for anticorruption professionals on the subject of Increasing Salaries as a Way to Fight Corruption. The discussion was passionate and many comments were posted in multiple discussion fora. I received some examples of why the “increasing salaries” argument fails. For example:
“Putin quadrupled salaries in 2001. It had no effect.”
“In the ‘60’s, the University Di Tella, in Buenos Aires, developed a study concluding that the cause of the corruption in public officials were low salaries. Then the government raised salaries but the corruption did not fall . . .”
Some of the professionals offered “traditional wisdom”:
“When you feed sharks, they rest for a while but soon after they are more powerful.”
“Absolute power (and money) corrupts absolutely.”
One of my colleagues discussed the complexities that gender issues introduce into the salaries question. (Click Here.) (and Here) And some commented on the virtues and/or vices of capitalism or other economic considerations.
A Difficult Subject
The variations of the responses reflect the difficulty of this issue and the underlying problem – we do not yet have the data needed to address the question of salary levels and corruption.
The IMF tried to tackle this question in a 1997 Report: Corruption and the Rate of Temptation: Do Low Wages in the Civil Service Cause Corruption? Caroline Van Rijckeghem and Beatrice Weder for the International Monetary Fund.
In attempting to determine whether low wages are related to corruption, the researchers developed an impressive cross tabulation of factors to be considered across a wide range of governments.
The researchers’ final analysis is complex. However, it is clear that the data points away from the notion that anticorruption can be bought with higher salaries.
The authors conclude:
“There is some weak evidence against the fair wage hypothesis [i.e., fair wages prevent corruption] . . . Linear extrapolation indicates that quasi-eradication of corruption requires a relative wage of 3 – 7 times the manufacturing wage. This magnitude is not consistent with the ‘fair wage-corruption’ hypothesis, unless civil servants have inflated opinions of their worth. It is consistent with the shirking hypothesis, provided bribe levels are low and/or probabilities of detection are high. . . . This finding is not consistent with a fair wage hypothesis which predicts a positive relationship between the probability of detection and corruption.”
This matches observable behavior. In many of the environments where I see this argument being raised, the corrupt officials are not just stealing to supplement their salaries; they are stealing the equivalent of their salaries many times over.
In We Can’t Fix Corruption – It’s Part of our Culture, over 150 comments were posted in LinkedIn and other discussion groups about observable change in the ethical behavior of societies. While the discussion unveiled no “silver bullet” to change corrupt practices, most agreed that much more than law enforcement is necessary. The change must encompass many aspects of living. Including salary policy.
Salary Policy Development Needs
One thing the Van Rijckeghem Report struggles with – and is problematic globally – is the question of a livable wage.
One rational basis for increasing salaries for public servants is to provide a fair, livable wage commensurate with the value of their contribution to society.
Policy makers and politicians will too often raise the “need” for higher salaries in the absence of analytical data. “Higher salaries to fight corruption” is merely accepted on the basis that good behavior can be purchased.
That idea is simply not supported by research. Maybe at some point in the future it will be supported, but not today.
Salary policy must be linked directly to a country-specific determination of a livable wage.
Without questions, fair salaries should be paid to government employees as a matter of human rights – fair pay for fair work. We all rely upon them for the successful operation of our civilizations and they should be paid accordingly.
As a matter of respect for their responsibilities we should examine such issues with the same level of care that we expect from public employees.
A proper examination of the costs of living in relation to the salaries of government officials should be undertaken as normal part of the salary policy development process. We have seen that there are challenges in developing global “costs of living indexes” that make such indexes interesting but insufficient to develop salary policy in a specific society. Policy makers need very specific information and the examination of costs of living must be specific to each society.
The notion that we can buy integrity from our people must be set aside in favor of rational analysis.