Notice & Comment

Jellum on Parrillo on Salarization Impact on Government Legitimacy (AdLaw Bridge Series)

Over at the Journal of Things We Like (Lots) — aka Jotwell, which I explain further here  — Linda Jellum has a solid reviewof Nicholas Parrillo ‘s terrific book Against the Profit Motive: The Salary Revolution in American Government, 1780-1940 (2013). The Law and Society Association provides a great summary of the book:

Against the Profit Motive traces the transformation between the late eighteenth century and the early twentieth century in the way public officials were paid. During this period, set salaries, divorced from the profit motive, supplanted alternative forms of income dependent on the delivery of services or the achievement of output. Through exhaustive and creative archival research, Parrillo uncovers the prevalence in antebellum America of recipients of government services paying government officers a fee (what Parrillo calls a facilitative payment) for the service; in the early period the fees were negotiated by the officer and recipient of services but later were set by statute. He also shows widespread reliance by government on payment of bounties to officials to enforce criminal and civil law and to collect taxes. Parrillo reveals that facilitative payments fell from favor because the notion that officers should serve their customers was inconsistent with mass democratic politics and interest-group rivalry. Governments abandoned bounties because they were excessively coercive, failed to secure mass voluntary cooperation, and undercut state legitimacy. This is a thought-provoking, novel, and magisterial account of the theory and practice of compensation of government officials and public servants and shows how practices that were once considered legitimate and, indeed, desirable to induce careful service became discredited as corrupt.
The book both recovers and reconstructs an unfamiliar historical world and persuasively explains the emergence of key features of modern governance. Weaving together exhaustive archival research with sophisticated theoretical engagement, the book draws our attention to something familiar — payment of government officials – and makes the familiar seem surprising. It shows us how to think anew about this familiar topic by reconstructing the profit motive model of payment. It explores how our revised understanding of this specialized but important topic sheds light on some of the largest issues in political and legal history, particularly the development of institutional legitimacy in American state-building.


Professor Jellum sketches out a number of implications the book’s findings have for the modern administrative state, including a cautionary tale about current privatization efforts.* Here’s a taste from her Jotwell review:

[T]he book is an interesting, albeit comprehensive, read. It is an exhaustively researched and sophisticated analysis of the transformation in the way public officials are paid. Notably, the conclusions Professor Parrillo draws offer an important cautionary tale for using economic incentives to motivate public officials in modern times. He teaches that if we believe in a professional and politically insulated government service and if we want broad participation in administrative government, then we must fight against those who argue that government should be run like for-profit businesses.

This book is a fascinating read for anyone interested in the history (and future) of administrative law and regulation. It’s just a superb contribution to the academic literature, as evidenced by receiving theHurst Award from the Law and Society Association for the year’s best book on socio-legal history and the ABA Administrative Law Section’s annual  award for the best book or article in the field. The book provides so many insights into the past that have a lot of relevance to the present and future of the regulatory state. And if you like this book, I’d recommend Professor Parrillo’s Yale Law Journal article on the rise of legislative history during the first half of the twentieth century .

UPDATE: I forgot to mention that Balkinization hosted an online symposium about the book (contributions are collected here), and you can access the introductory chapter for free here as well as a talk about the book here.

* I have one minor nit about Professor Jellum’s review concerning her observation that the book is “imperfect” because Professor Parrillo “fails to fully explore the relevance of the past to the possibilities of the future, leaving the reader to make those connections.” I tend to agree more with the Law and Society Association’s assessment that the book is “filled with smart observations and insights; it is sprawling in its coverage and its use of archival materials, yet it is meticulously organized and constructed so as to carry the reader through a long period of time and a wide array of government operations.” For me, the lack of a normative or predictive angle is a major feature — not a bug — of serious legal history scholarship and of this book in particular.

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