Against the Profit Motive: The Transformation of American Government

Nicholas Parrillo, Yale Law School

Mon, 05/02/2011
Noon, 210 Dickinson Hall
Event Category: 
Co-sponsored Event

In America today, the lawful income of a public official consists of a salary. However, in the eighteenth century and often far into the nineteenth and early twentieth, American law authorized a wider variety of ways for officials to make money. Judges charged fees for transactions in the cases they heard. District attorneys won a fee for each criminal they convicted. Tax investigators received a percentage of the evasions they discovered. Naval officers were awarded a percentage of the value of the ships they captured, plus bounties for the enemy sailors on board ships they sank. Militiamen enjoyed rewards for capturing Indians or taking their scalps. Policemen were allowed rewards for recovering stolen property or arresting suspects. Jailors collected fees from inmates for permitting them various privileges, while the managers of penitentiaries had a share of the product of inmates’ labor. Clerks deciding immigrants’ applications for citizenship took a fee for every application. Government doctors deciding veterans’ applications for disability benefits did the same, as did federal land officers deciding settlers’ applications for homesteads. Even diplomats could lawfully accept a “gift” from a foreign government upon finalizing a treaty.  

What these arrangements had in common was that the officers’ incomes depended, immediately and objectively, upon the delivery of services and the achievement of outputs. By a gradual yet profound transformation extending from the late eighteenth century through the early twentieth, American lawmakers abolished all these forms of income and replaced them with the fixed salaries that we now take for granted in government service, attenuating the relationship of officials’ income to their conduct. In so doing, they made the absence of the profit motive a defining feature of government.

This seminar will explore the reasons why this transformation happened – and what difference it has made.As lunch is provided at noon workshops, we require reservations. Please contact the AMS Program office, 42 McCosh Hall, 258-4710, or email

Nicholas Parrillo is Associate Professor of Law at Yale. He teaches administrative law, legislation, and American legal history, as well as seminars on privatization and public management. He has published articles on the U.S. government's use of privateers during the 19th century and on its relationship to its contractors during World War II. He is writing a book, Against the Profit Motive: The Transformation of American Government, 1780-1940 (forthcoming with Yale University Press), about how American lawmakers remade governance by shifting public officers' monetary compensation away from profit-seeking arrangements -- such as fees-for-service and bounties -- and toward fixed salaries. A member of the New York bar, Professor Parrillo holds a J.D. from Yale and an A.B. from Harvard, was a recipient of the NYU Golieb Fellowship in Legal History and of Yale's Whiting Fellowship in the Humanities, and served as a clerk to Judge Stephen F. Williams of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit.

This event is cosponsored by the Program in American Studies and the Program in Law and Public Affairs.