Paternalism Is About Respect

Paternalism is often puzzling, and over the years I’ve pondered many possible explanations of it.  So I find it especially interesting that a certain common example of paternalism fits awkwardly with most of the usual explanations. This interesting example: rules about who are eligible candidates in an election. It is common, for example, to require that candidates be locally-resident citizens above a certain age and without felony convictions.

I assigned this topic to my public choice class for their last paper. 60% (of relatively libertarian GMU econ undergrads) favored such rules, mainly arguing that allowing more candidates would make for longer ballots (!), and that banned candidates might be end up being worse if elected. The other 40% argued that more choice induces more competition and allows better matches to voter preferences. Overall, I’d guess that a majority of ordinary folks would support adding more requirements, e.g., a college degree.

This example is especially interesting because it is not a case of a majority protecting a minority from themselves: a majority is being protected from itself. And who is protecting it?  In a democracy, it would have to be a past majority. Yet few seem to believe future majorities are actually at much risk of knowingly electing excessively young, foreign, or criminal politicians. If the fear is of unknowingly electing such folks, that at most justifies more disclosure rules.

This paternalism seems plausibly explained as a status move: we disrespect certain groups by declaring them ineligible to run for office, and we elevate eligible groups in contrast. For this purpose, it doesn’t really matter that there wouldn’t be much chance of us electing the ineligible, even if they were allowed. Consider that changes in who can be elected has often tracked who gets respect.  E.g., ancient Rome:

The Conflict of the Orders … was a political struggle between the Plebeians (commoners) and Patricians (aristocrats) of the ancient Roman Republic, in which the Plebeians sought political equality with the Patricians.

The Conflict of the Orders … was a political struggle between the Plebeians (commoners) and Patricians (aristocrats) of the ancient Roman Republic, in which the Plebeians sought political equality with the Patricians. … At first only Patricians were allowed to stand for election to political office, but over time these laws were revoked, and eventually all offices were opened to the Plebeians.

This paternalism-as-status-marker story fits with free speech being a status marker, and with many regulatory asymmetries, such as being more concerned about teen pregnancy than 35+ pregnancy, teen drivers more than elderly drivers, and drug/alcohol use of the poor more than the rich.  It also fits a standard sociology story of 20th century occupational licensing:

Commercial advantage, however, is not the only motive behind the demand for occupational licensing. For a variety of reasons, a rapidly increasing number of occupational groups aspire to the professional status and prestige traditionally enjoyed by the lawyer, physician, and university professor. Teachers, social workers, librarians, insurance salesmen, and many other “white collar” workers now claim that they are entitled to be recognized as “professionals.” In order to achieve professional status … many of these groups have consciously reorganized the internal structure of their occupational organization along the lines of the legal and medical professions. Licensing the occupation is one of the most important steps in the “professionalization” process because it represents the judgment of the state that the occupational group is entitled to exercise the same kind of self-regulatory power traditionally reserved the the learned professions of law and medicine.

This is part of a longer tradition of professions as way for elites to make money while pretending to be driven by a code of chivalry, and so distinguish themselves from mere merchants:

As occupations, professions were a special case, first in serving the social elite and later in being populated by the elite. Professions, like land, broke the direct connection between work and income for the English gentleman, permitting him to make a considerable sum of money without engaging in a “despised” trade. … “One could carry on commerce by sleight of hand while donning the vestments of professional altruism.”

In fact, the top classes of most ancient societies were explicitly distinguished from trade/merchant classes by adherance to idealistic codes of conduct. (See quotes below on Europe, Japan, China, and India.)

Human foragers had strong social norms against explicit dominance, bragging, or sub-coalitions, at least between families. Leaders could not give orders or act superior, and were expected to focus on the good of the group. The introduction of farming forced humans to accept explicit inequalities, but this was apparently easier to stomach if elites embraced good-of-the-group codes of conduct. Explicitly selfish merchants of unequal wealth were more despised and restrained.

We are homo hypocritus. We have long encouraged our powerful to seem altruistic, and we tend to show our allegience and respect to them by accepting such appearances at face value. We let them police themselves and define who can join them, and we let them limit our actions related to their sphere (e.g., via paternalistic regulation), all to show them our respect.  We expect them to justify such actions by reference to protecting and helping us, and we know not to examine such justifications too closely.

Europe:  The post-medieval gentlemanly code of the value of a man’s honor, respect for women, and a concern for those less fortunate, is directly derived from earlier ideals of chivalry. … Knights were taught to excel in the arms, to show courage, to be gallant, loyal and to swear off cowardice and baseness. .. Medieval Spain … [was] the “cradle of chivalry” … due to the direct impact of Arab civilization in Al-Andalus. “Piety, courtesy, prowess in war, the gift of eloquence, the art of poetry, skill on horseback, dexterity with sword, lance, and bow” was expected of the elite Moorish knight.

Japan:  Bushidō … [is] a uniquely Japanese code of conduct adhered to by samurai since time immemorial, and loosely analogous to Western concepts of chivalry. This code is said to have emphasized virtues such as loyalty, honor, obedience, duty, filial piety, and self-sacrifice. …. The Bushidō code is typified by seven virtues: rectitude, courage, benevolence, respect, honesty, honor, loyalty. Associated virtues: filial piety, wisdom, care for the aged.

China:  Scholar-bureaucrats … were civil servants appointed by the emperor of China to perform day-to-day governance. … These officials mostly came from the well-educated men known as the scholar-gentry. … These men had earned academic degrees … by passing rigorous civil service examinations. The scholar-bureaucrats were schooled in calligraphy and Confucian texts. They dominated the politics of China at the time. Since only a small fraction of them could become court officials, the majority of the scholar-gentry stayed in local villages or cities as social leaders. The scholar-gentry carried out social welfare measures, taught in private schools, helped decide minor legal disputes, supervised community projects, maintained local law and order, conducted Confucian ceremonies, assisted in the government’s collection of taxes, and preached Confucian moral teachings. As a class, these scholars represented morality and virtue.

India: [The 5 social classes: 1.] Brahmins … Only a subset … involved in the priestly duties. … also … doctors, warriors, writers, poets, land owners, ministers, etc. … [2.] Kshatriyans … warriors in the army …  [3.] Vaishya … merchants, cattle-herders and artisans. … [4.] Shudra … farmers, craftsmen, and labourers … [5. Untouchables.]  … Of the six occupational duties of the brāhmaṇas, three are compulsory – namely, worship of the Deity, study of the Vedas and the giving of charity. In exchange, a brāhmaṇa should receive charity, and this should be his means of livelihood. A brāhmaṇa cannot take up any professional occupational duty for his livelihood. … Brahmins believe in … Let the entire society be happy and prosperous and … the whole world is one family. … Most Brahmins today practice vegetarianism.

Added 7a:  Matt paraphrases:

Drinking-age laws aren’t designed to prevent teenagers from drinking (and thus the fact that they don’t work is immaterial); they’re designed as a fuck-you from the voting-age demographic to those younger than they, rubbing their noses in it just in case the kids start getting ideas.

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  • lemmy caution

    In colonial United States, England usually appointed english-born people to rule. They did not trust the US born. The revolution was a revolt of the US-born elites who wanted more power. The whole “need to be born in the US to run for president” thing was not an afterthought.

    The same pattern was common throughout the americas.

    • Silas Barta

      In colonial United States, England usually appointed english-born people to rule. … The whole “need to be born in the US to run for president” thing was not an afterthought.

      Right, except that the framersexempted anyone born before the adoption of the Constitution, thus allowing foreign-born Englishmen currently alive.

      No person except a natural born Citizen, or a Citizen of the United States, at the time of the Adoption of this Constitution

  • Tomasz Wegrzanowski

    I’m quite sure the rule that American president must be native born comes from experience of 18th century republics like Poland, in which the very possibility of electing a foreign politicians (in case of Poland the non-hereditary king) attracted severe amount of foreign meddling, which was eventually one of the main causes of Poland’s demise.

    American Founding Fathers were certainly aware of that. This was not protection against future majority, it was protection against foreign interference, and it made a lot of sense back then.

    Most things which puzzle you are not results of some hidden forces, they’re effective solutions to existing problems, many of which continue in spite of the problems no longer being as severe due to the general status quo bias.

  • noematic

    I’m a lawyer practicing in Australia. I can think of two quick examples in the legal profession here which would tend to agree with this post. Firstly, as a matter of practice, lawyers are generally exempt from fair trading legislation on the basis that the ‘essential character’ of core activities engaged in by the legal profession is not that of ‘trade or commerce.’ This is despite deliberately broadly drafted fair trading legislation, presumably designed to abolish such immunity.

    Secondly, barristers enjoy an absolute immunity from liability for negligence in respect of in-court work.

    Non-professionals certainly do not enjoy the above immunities!

  • salacious

    The traditional story is that the US constitutional rule that presidents be native born was designed by Hamilton’s opponent to eliminate any chance of him reaching the presidency.

    • Hook

      The rule would not have stopped him, since the rule reads:

      “No person except a natural born Citizen, or a Citizen of the United States, at the time of the Adoption of this Constitution, shall be eligible to the Office of President…”

      So as long as a foreign born person was a citizen when the constitution was adopted, they could be President.

  • Robin Hanson

    Tomasz, did the Poles knowingly elect foreigners? If so or if not, what exact “meddling” did that cause?

    • Tomasz Wegrzanowski

      Foreign countries would throw first money, connections, and then armies, behind their favourite candidates – the kind of resources domestic candidates didn’t have.

      Then very often this forced the country into some alliances that weren’t in its long term interests.

      Elections were much uglier then than they are now. And consequences of a single bad elections much more severe. There seem to be a consensus among historians that electing foreigners was on net a bad thing.

  • TGGP

    Fabio Rojas has coined the term “Exalted Professional Syndrome“. His concern seems limited to how they fail to achieve the goals they are associated with rather than why the rest of society endorses their exaltation.

  • Steven Schreiber

    The Struggle of the Orders wasn’t about status. It was about genuine changes to the electoral system, which was still closely aligned with how the Roman monarchy had been (the monarch was simply replaced with two consuls).

  • tom

    Why aren’t prohibition on electing felons best viewed as an additional punishment of the felons, rather than a limitation on voters?

    It’s similar to felons not being allowed to vote. You may want felons to be able to vote, but the main goal of the prohibitions on voting may not have been to keep the elite above the rabble; it may have been ‘voting is a privilege’. It is not a huge leap to say you cannot run for a position that you cannot vote for.

    And do you have evidence that MADD and other anti-drunk driving groups are motivated mainly by age-group discrimination? Do you have evidence that drinking by 18-20yr-olds was not reduced by the change to 21yr-minimums? I support 18yr-old drinking, but it’s important to be right about what motivated it in the first place.

    You are mixing strong cases of badly-motivated paternalism (like much occupational licensing) with others that are not nearly so obvious (worries about teen pregancy versus old-lady pregnancy, prohibitions on electing convicted criminals).

  • Philo

    Robin refers to “a longer tradition of professions as way for elites to make money while pretending to be driven by a code of chivalry, and so distinguish themselves from mere merchants.” I would replace the 100% cynicism of his statement by some lesser percentage (95%? 90%?). Elites’ commitment to codes of chivalry is, I suspect, largely a combination of self-deception and outright bad faith, but not entirely: some non-zero fraction (5%? 10%) of their motivation is, indeed, supplied by the code, contrary to self-interest.

  • Robin Hanson

    tom, I am arguing we prohibit felon candidates in order to dis them.

    Philo, I was not claiming 100%. For most any claim I make 100% is a poor default for interpreting it.

    • Philo

      Fair enough. I’ll just read you as habitually overstating your point.

    • Grant

      This seems to beg the question: If X% of elites actually act altruistically according to some code, could society’s belief in this code be worth the costs of deception?

  • Jason

    The Yale faculty-undergrad sex ban as another example? It supposedly was put in place to protect the students.

    • Robin Hanson

      Yes, that ban can plausibly be seen as dissing faculty who have sex with students, relative to other faculty, and dissing students who have sex with faculty, relative to other students. In our culture a majority would give lip service to the idea that such people should have lowered status.

  • Grant

    If we wanted to protect teens from harming themselves with alcohol, we’d allow them to drink under the supervision of their parents or other adults. Currently they go off and do it on their own.

  • Abelard Lindsey

    This explanation of licensing makes it clear that it is nothing more than a form of rent-seeking parasitism.

  • bluntobject

    Thank you very kindly for the link! Not only did you send me a fair bit of traffic, but I think you also gave me my first comment troll. What fun!

    (Could you pass on a citation for the empirics you mentioned, comparing the children of 18yo mothers to 35+yo mothers? I don’t particularly doubt you, but it’s the sort of thing that’s counterintuitive enough to demand a reference.)

  • Steve Witham

    Nice related article: Frank Furedi, “Specialist pleading.”

    Commentators interpret the declining influence of traditional authority and institutions as proof that people have become less deferential and possess more critical attitudes than in the past. However, it is less frequently noted that deference to traditional authority has given way to the reverence of expertise. …

  • Psychohistorian

    “Human foragers had strong social norms against explicit dominance, bragging, or sub-coalitions, at least between families. Leaders could not give orders or act superior, and were expected to focus on the good of the group.”

    Do you have actual evidence of this? It sounds not only like you made it up, but that it is exteremely unlikely to be true. Foraging communities still likely had elders, shaman, chiefs, etc, and it seems likely these people had some perks for their leadership, and must have given orders. Indeed, any kind of large-game hunting requires someone to give orders, and is likely to lead to unequal status-based distribution of goods. Unless we have knowledge of pre-history that contradicts this…

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