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Against the Profit Motive – A New Book by Professor Nicholas R. Parrillo ’04

In his new book, Against the Profit Motive: The Salary Revolution in American Government, 1780–1940, Associate Professor Nicholas R. Parrillo ’04 shows how American law once authorized government officers to make money from their jobs on a profit-seeking basis in a way that would surprise many observers today. Using previously untapped primary sources, the book analyzes prosecutors who were paid by the number of convictions they won, tax collectors who were paid a percentage of the evasions they uncovered, naval officers who were paid rewards for each ship they sank, and more. Parrillo explains how and why American legislators abolished all these profit-seeking arrangements and replaced them with the fixed salaries that we now take for granted in government service, transforming the nature of the officialdom and its relationship to the lay public.

“Today,” says Parrillo, “you often hear politicians say that government should be ‘run like a business.’ But American government has, in fact, been run like a business for much of its history. The government’s present insulation from the profit motive is the result of a long and active process of experimentation with profit-seeking. Legislators in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries rejected profit-seeking in favor of salaries on the basis of hard firsthand experience. What I aim to do in this book is recover that experience.”

The book is published by Yale University Press. Visit the book’s webpage, where you can read the introductory chapter.

Watch a video of Parrillo discussing the book.