All Elected Officials Should Take A Vow Of Poverty

9 07 2010

The Stigmatization of St Francis: 1235-45, Barfüsserkirche, Erfurt

My friend Troy started a political discussion on Facebook, and I sort of offhandedly suggested a vow of poverty for people in office. The more I think about it, the more I like the idea.

In America, we claim not to believe in royalty. We describe our officeholders as “public servants.” Yet, we attach all the trappings of royalty to our leaders. They live in mansions, they ride in limousines, they have personal chefs, etc. Obviously there are different degrees. The president literally lives like a king, and small, local offices like city council pay little to nothing. Regardless; despite the Revolutionary War, we have failed to throw off the groveling reverence for lords and ladies.

I’ve thought for a long time that salaries for elected officials should have a very modest cap, say $30K/year. The idea is to separate public service from the expectation of wealth. That way, people would run for office out of a genuine desire to serve, rather than desire for riches and status. But capping the salary would only increase the demand for “donations” from special interests.  Make a rule and the weasels will always find a way around it.

That’s why I like the vow of poverty. Let’s make it explicitly about the officeholder’s honor. If he upholds his vow, great. If he’s flying off to Bermuda in a private jet, he’s obviously a weasel and everyone knows it.

There would be certain concessions. The elected official and family can live in a safe, secure place. But not luxurious, or even necessarily comfortable. They should feel the cold in the winter, the heat in the summer, and do their own home maintenance. I was going to also make a concession for health insurance, but screw that. They should rely on a single payer health insurance system that is shared with the general population. The whole family can be on medicare regardless of age. They can have a security escort when traveling, but the primary facet of the vehicle should be energy efficiency, not comfort. They should have a small, strict budget for food and clothes. They can have access to nice clothes, nice food, and nice accommodations, but only for the purpose of hosting foreign heads of state. It goes for the president, too. The White House would be a place of diplomacy and speech-making, but not a residence. They can work in nice buildings. The work of public service deserves reverence; the servant does not. Respect? Sure. Admiration? If they earn it. But reverence? No.

The vow lasts as long as the person holds elected office. If at any time they accept extravagant gifts of money, service, or travel, the vow is considered broken, which is grounds for dismissal. They ought to leave office with less net worth than when they entered. If they want to write a book and go on speaking tours afterwards, they can do that. Children of officeholders can be eligible for a special college scholarship, as long as they meet reasonable requirements for GPA and SAT scores. Being elected is not a life sentence to poverty, but holding office is, among other things, an exercise in privation. One would hope that the official would learn powerful sympathy for the less fortunate.

And what shall we do with our vestigial need to worship a royal family? Point it at the movie stars where it belongs!

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