Against the Profit Motive


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The Salary Revolution in American Government, 1780-1940

Nicholas R. Parrillo

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In America today, a public official’s lawful income consists of a salary. But until a century ago, the law frequently provided for officials to make money on a profit-seeking basis. Prosecutors won a fee for each defendant convicted. Tax collectors received a percentage of each evasion uncovered. Naval officers took a reward for each ship sunk. Numerous other officers were likewise paid for “performance.” This book is the first to document the American government’s for-profit past, to discover how profit-seeking defined officialdom’s  relationship to the citizenry, and to explain how lawmakers—by ultimately banishing the profit motive in favor of the salary—transformed that relationship forever.

Nicholas R. Parrillo is associate professor of law at Yale University.

"Economists beware! In this path-breaking book, Nicholas Parrillo revolutionizes our understanding of compensation systems. With gripping historical evidence, he demonstrates the profoundly political and cultural construction of the US’s salary system." - Viviana A. Zelizer, author of Economic Lives: How Culture Shapes the Economy (Princeton University Press, 2010)

"Against the Profit Motive is more than a prodigiously researched account of public employee compensation in the United States.  It offers a foundational perspective on one of the most challenging dilemmas Americans faced over three centuries:  empowering government officials to act independently on behalf of the public good while ensuring the legitimacy of those actions, even when they met with opposition." - Brian Balogh, author of A Government Out of Sight: The Mystery of National Authority in Nineteenth-Century America (Cambridge University Press)

"Nicholas Parrillo's Against the Profit Motive represents the best in a new generation of source-based, reality-based legal history.  Forgoing yet another discussion of the usual cases and well-worn theory and historiography, Parrillo takes us somewhere new. Through exemplary and tireless research in previously untapped primary sources, Parrillo takes us deep into the inner workings of early American governance and meticulously reconstructs a previously unknown historical world of public-private bounties, fees, rewards, prizes, gifts, profits, and moieties that made that all-important machinery seem to "go of itself."  Together with his Yale colleague Jerry Mashaw, Parrillo is doing nothing less than rewriting the history of the early American state."--William Novak, University of Michigan Law School

“A fascinating and deeply researched book [that] explores what must be among the least examined aspects of American history — the way compensation for public officials has changed over time. Today’s mega-state would never have been possible without the changes in compensation [Parrillo] documents.”—George Leef, Forbes

“This is a remarkable book. Based on prodigious research and artfully reported, Against the Profit Motive recounts an untold story with important implications for political and theoretical issues . . . . An impressive achievement that will make a lasting contribution to our understanding of the development of the modern state.”—Logan Everett Sawyer III, Journal of Economic History

“A fascinating new study of the salary revolution in American government . . . . Parrillo makes a persuasive argument about the importance of an often little-noticed aspect of American government . . . . Highly recommended.”—Choice

“Parrillo expertly explains how and why state and federal governments moved from paying their employees and contractors fees to paying them salaries . . . . Rewarding reading.”—Michael Ariens, Federal Lawyer

“The theories and history Parrillo documents form the perfect background for tackling the radical changes taking place in policing and teaching in recent decades . . . . [His] book is a deep and engrossing dive into the history of the provisioning of government services during the first 160 years of our country. . . . [A] major scholarly achievement.”—Boston Review

“This is an important book that makes an original contribution to our understanding of the formation and power of the American state. It belongs on the bookshelf of every scholar of American political development and public administration.”—Peri E. Arnold, Review of Politics

“[P]owerful and provocative . . . [This book] is a work of history, but this history has immense contemporary relevance . . . Parrillo transports us to the largely forgotten world of nineteenth-century American government as bazaar. This was a world in which one could readily mistake citizens for consumers – and bureaucrats for businessmen . . . [A] sweeping and vivid account.”—Harvard Law Review

“Scholars for generations to come will return to Against the Profit Motive as the definitive account of government compensation. . . . [It is] among the finest histories of American governance and statecraft.”—Gautham Rao, Law and History Review
Winner of the 2014 Law and Society Association James Willard Hurst Book Prize.

Winner of the 2014 Annual Scholarship Award from the American Bar Association's Section on Administrative Law
ISBN: 9780300194753
Publication Date: October 22, 2013
584 pages, 6 1/8 x 9 1/4
3 b/w illus.

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