Why No Job Paternalism?

Parents are “paternalistic” towards their kids in many ways. Parents try to steer kids away from bad sex, drugs, hobbies, friends, and jobs. Parents warn that bad hobbies can lead to bad friends, and that bad drugs and friends can lead to bad sex and poor jobs. Parents warn that bad drugs, sex and jobs can lead to bad health. Parents encourage kids to attend school to encourage good jobs, and parents avoid neighborhoods where kids might meet bad friends.

Governments assist in many of these paternalisms. Governments require school, and prohibit sex and certain hobbies below certain ages, and they ban some drugs for all ages. But it is curious that governments don’t do more. While it seems hard to ban bad friends, it seems more feasible to limit bad jobs. Why are kids allowed to attempt to pursue mostly “dead end” careers as actors, musicians, or athletes against their parents wishes? Why are young kids allowed to take classes preparing them for such career attempts?

Choice of career correlates greatly not only with income, but also with health and happiness. If drugs and young sex are banned, and young is school required, because of such correlations, why not jobs as well? Even if some people are required to do bad jobs, a parental veto over a kid doing such a job would limit supply and raise wages until those jobs weren’t so bad anymore.

I can mostly understand wanting to let folks be free, and I can mostly understand wanting to limit kids freedom “for their own good.” I have more trouble understanding our odd mix of paternalism and freedom.  Why do we limit some things, and not others?

Added noon: The parental veto concept is just an example.  Jobs could also be limited via licenses to do or train for a job.  Most professional licensing is said to protect the customer – why not more to protect the worker?

I suspect we allow harmful acting, music, etc. careers because they raise our society’s status relative to others, and it looks good individually to approve of such activities. Most parents hope it won’t be their kids who pay the price.

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  • James

    Lots of missing words. You may want to go back and insert them.

    It may have something to do with how parents tend to think their kids are more talented than average, so they overestimate the probability that they’ll find success in a low-probability-of-success, high-reward career (actors, musicians, and athletes all fall into this category pretty well).

  • I’m not convinced that it would be so easy for the government to stop young people from going into dead-end jobs. In a free society, the government shouldn’t generally be in the business of telling people what jobs they can and can’t have. The one plausible method I can think of would be for public schools to cut their programs in art, literature, etc. But those programs exist for many reasons aside from career preparation. It wouldn’t be just the aspiring painters, poets, and actors who’d complain about those programs being cut, but anyone who values a well-rounded education in the arts.

    You’ve omitted any discussion of “day jobs.” An artistically fulfilling job that wouldn’t be financially viable on its own can become one component of an overall well-constructed life, if you’re willing to work passionately at that job while work dutifully at a job that pays good money.

    You must have left out a word here: “While it seems hard to bad friends”

  • Peter Van Valkenburgh

    I have some big problems with this.

    1. Regarding the correlation between job choice and depression, I think it is absurd to claim causation. If we can agree that some people are genetically more prone to having or displaying emotional responses, then it is very feasible that these individuals are A) innately prone to depression and also B) likely to enter professions which demand inter-personal and empathic skills — arts, social service, healthcare, and education. It is, I believe, untenable to suggest that these professions cause these mental states. I think it’s much more likely that emotional people choose emotional jobs and likewise the converse. Conversations with my engineer friends have affirmed, for me, this belief.

    2. Regarding “against their parents wishes” As Bryan Caplan has pointed out on Facebook, more than a few modern parents seem to encourage arts education and even art job search for their kids. Why? I sure don’t know, and I was one of those kids (now, about four years later than most, I’m going to law school instead of acting). There’s an old quote from John Adams that exemplifies our current situation:

    “I must study politics and war that my sons may have liberty to study mathematics and philosophy. My sons ought to study mathematics and philosophy, geography, natural history, naval architecture, navigation, commerce, and agriculture, in order to give their children a right to study painting, poetry, music, architecture, statuary, tapestry, and porcelain.”

    What we should ask John is what happens to the world when all anyone can do is tapestry and porcelain (and it makes them depressed –at least according to the OAS).

    3. Finally, with regard to income. I apologize to you –and all the other economists out there– for the unfortunate fact that some of the income from certain careers is non-pecuniary. I agree, it makes it infuriating difficult to understand crazy human behavior (like acting or painting or sculpting) using statistical models. Where I disagree is whether we should attempt to discourage all the human behaviors we egg-heads fail to understand.

    • Doug S.

      Law school? Really? Right now, law school really isn’t all that great of a deal, assuming you live in the U.S. There is currently a serious oversupply of lawyers relative to the jobs available for them.

      • Peter

        Oh I know. Two things: 1st I’m more interested in the academic side, the jd is not the goal. 2nd, from experimentation I discovered that I could get a way better lsat score than gre. While I’m top 5 competitive for law, that’s less true for econ phd.

  • UserGoogol

    As a matter of fact, the government does ban some bad jobs. Prostitution is the most flagrant, (which is often justified on explicitly “paternalistic” grounds that prostitution is a horrible job) and more generally things like OSHA have the effect of banning jobs which are deemed unreasonably unsafe. It’s just that there’s only so many blanket restrictions you can viably put on the sort of employment a person can engage in, partly for the “someone needs to do it” reason you note.

    The different idea of the government enforcing a parental ban on jobs just seems really weird. (And weirdness in of itself of course is a barrier to policies being implemented.) Paternalism by the government is done to promote some sense of the common good, or if you’re more cynical as power for its own sake. But giving parents a veto does neither. Politicians don’t personally get power, and a parental veto is a fairly inefficient way to promote good jobs across society as a whole. And of course, although voters are mostly people who are no longer young adults, all voters have been through that stage of life and thus have a certain sympathy with young people, and support the idea that once a person eighteen they’re freed from their parents. If parents had a veto over the sorts of jobs minors could get, that would be different, but I’d say the main reason why that doesn’t exist is because there’s already a whole lot of restrictions on the sorts of jobs minors can get so there isn’t really a point.

  • anon

    The market tends to underproduce cultural goods and services, because the suppliers of such goods can only capture a fraction of the value they create. (For the sake of argument, consider entertainment value and contribution to future cultural works.) There are mechanisms such as copyright and patent protection, as well as the ethic of “giving credit”, but they must be presumed to be imperfect. One might argue that newly-produced culture is of little value because we have so much already, but IMHO this is quite dubious.

    So parents might in fact be worse off in the aggregate under the proposed policy, even though each individual child may be making his parents better off by switching to a good job. By contrast, the externalities of bad drugs, neighborhoods [crime, etc.] and sex [STDs] are often negative, so each child switching away can make everyone else better off.

    Sports are similar; in addition to their entertainment value, they provide exposure to desirable values such as physical fitness (professional athletes are often unhealthy, but they are generally healthier than someone not exercising at all), team cooperation, and the ethic of sportsmanship (which helps defuse ingroup/outgroup rivalries).

    Your argument also depends on what the opportunity cost of a “dead end career” is. If the alternative is a dead-end job in paper pushing, then it’s a wash.

    • Robert Koslover

      The market tends to underproduce cultural goods and services… (For the sake of argument, consider entertainment value and contribution to future cultural works.)

      I’m trying to understand this. Are you asserting that our society (in particular, the modern USA) is currently suffering from a shortage of entertainment?

      Sports are similar; in addition to their entertainment value, they provide…

      And again, just to clarify, are you asserting that we are currently suffering from a shortage of sports?

      • anon

        Are you asserting that our society (in particular, the modern USA) is currently suffering from a shortage of entertainment [and] sports?

        Not obviously–but cultures where career choice is coerced (by parents or governments) may well be facing such a shortage.

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  • michael vassar

    Err, Robin… what’s a bad job? Casually, I’d guess that in aggregate, entertainers have far more status and far more income than academics. Given that academics have higher IQs, conscientiousness, etc, one would expect the opposite, especially if more people try to become academics (which I suspect is the case). Entertainment jobs have more concentrated income, but does the drummer in a band in a local bar *really* have lower status than an instructor at Temple University, a professor at a community college or someone on their second post-doc at Emory?

  • Actually, there is a strong correlation between depression — particularly mild bipolar disoder — and being an artist. The former seems to cause one become the latter.

    And actually, there are far more cultural goods being produced in free market systems than are (or have been) produced in any other system, so it’s inaccurate to say that markets tend to underproduce cultural goods. Free market systems make people wealthy enough to become artists, etc.

    At the same time, there has been an overproduction of such people — precisely because the government makes going to college so cheap (or makes it easier for us to pay for it later, over time), creating an education bubble. People are going into areas that historically have been done by people with the leisure — meaning, wealth — to do it. Not anymore. Thus, the situation of these sorts of things becoming “dead end” jobs.

  • David

    Anecdotally, there’s a plethora of commerce/law and medical students at my own university who were shepherded into their career choice – call it job paternalism, if you will. I would expect this to be more rampant in countries like my own (Australia), where people begin vocational courses straight out of high school. The sufficiently rebellious express their inner drug-taker by studying the humanities in parallel as part of a combined degree.

    Having said this, I’m unconvinced my parents were a better judge than I! Given we are dealing with a range of options which all entail delayed gratification, I would think the developed frontal lobes of a parent are less of a competitive advantage here than with drug use.

  • Few commenters seem interested in the comparative question that was my focus. Why less paternalism in jobs that elsewhere?

    • Peter

      I think that’s because no one has bought into the assumption that job paternalism would have any beneficial effects on children. As Bryan Caplan has been pointing out, overly restrictive parenting doesn’t have much effect on future income (or anything beyond kid’s future opinion of parents). While some would argue that the same could be said of anti drug paternalism (and I’d be one to argue it) it is difficult to claim that anti drug paternalism has NO effect on future health (because causation is clearer between drug use and many conditions).

      If I were to write a question: “Why anti drug paternalism but no anti New Jersey paternalism?”, I suspect few comments would be interested in the comparison with many interested in whether my claim that Jersey is a danger to our child’s future (as can be reasonably said about drugs)

    • Handle

      The answer is actually quite simple: the political ideological worldview of the government paternalists. If you tend to see people’s low wages, difficulty landing a job, finding a personally fulfilling and financially enriching place in the labor market, and various employment-situation dissatisfactions, and so on as solely the fault of the exploitative and heartless employers and not in any substantial sense deriving from an individual’s foolhardiness or failure to properly understand reality, then who are you going to try to nudge?

      That worldview also loves the kind of mythological heroic narrative of the person rising to the top despite coming from the unlikeliest background. We especially love the story if they do this while also having to overcome some kind of clear impediment. People like to hope and over-encourage themselves and each other. No one wants to be the buzz-kill counselor and tell John Locke what he clearly cannot do. We’re not even supposed to believe in things like making conclusions as to what a man probably cannot accomplish and the propriety of dissuading him from even making the effort.

      But the good news (if by good you mean “nightmare”) is that this is actually only a transition phenomenon, and the inconsistency will be cleared away as we move to a more thoroughly individually-tailored perma-nudged society. In time, with the price-as-information mechanism having been brought thoroughly into disrepute, the government will play the role of “life-path market maker” between students and business. It will survey the businesses and try to project future requirements, and it will test the students for aptitude, diligence, and personality, and try to make the best assignments scientifically and intelligently.

      By equalizing labor supply and demand in most fields, wage differentials should become more narrow and egalitarian. And who knows, people might actually be happier. All that will be missing is freedom of choice.

    • Because people perceive that as infringing upon their right to choose how to make a living. Almost everyone would argue that this affects everyone equally, and therefore goes too far. It certainly violates subjective valuation. And it argues that the government knows better than every single individual what is the best thing for that individual to do with their lives.

    • dave


      Parents believe they know for sure that drugs, sex, etc. will lead to bad outcomes. They don’t know for sure that Johnny can’t be a rockstar. Truth is, at least some kids make it, and who are they to say otherwise.

      On a societal level this is obviously good, people pursuing their passion leads to true innovation, and some failures is the price of that. Zuckerburg didn’t invent Facebook by selling out to Microsoft in HS or going back to Hardvard like his parents wanted him to.

  • Douglas Knight

    Does the government ban on drugs come from the parents? If it does, it’s probably part of the sex paternalism, but maybe it comes from somewhere else. Prohibition wasn’t about children. Not that this helps with the jobs.

  • Luke Parrish

    My suspicion is that society gains a morale boost from more athletes and musicians (because of the outliers who excel) at a cost to most of the individuals who attempt these career paths. With drugs, illiteracy, etc. there are no gains for anyone other than the short term gains to the individual in terms of pleasure, work avoidance, etc.

    An alternate and not incompatible interpretation is simply that the activities that the government is against are low status/high cost whereas the ones only the parents are against are high status/high cost.

  • cournot

    There has historically been more paternalism — both implicit and explicit — in what govts allowed and more important, what governments allowed firms to do. Even schools today are less likely to serve in loco parentis compared to a few decades ago. Universities could expel kids for behavior off campus I believe (as is still true in many countries). Companies were very paternalistic as well as intrusive — Think of Ford’s “Sociology dept” which was a mechanism for snooping into their employees’ behavior and personal lives (even deciding when to give pay to spouses of husbands who drank too much). This would be mostly illegal today.

    And of course, Germany does more job paternalism with its early school tracking mechanism designed to push people to technical/trade vs white collar jobs.

    The US has an uneasy history of wanting freedom and wanting to be paternalistic. Given its heterogeneity it cannot come up with defensibly consistent standards for paternalism and any existing paternalisms are often challenged by strong interest groups with the right lawyers or elite connections. Indeed i think it’s easy to see why the US should have the most incoherent set of paternalisms from a national standpoint given the pull of historical habit vs. reasoning from constitutional first principles.

  • Doug S.

    Because when the government tells people what jobs to do, that’s Communism?

  • Traditionally most government jobs were dead end jobs, both literally and figuratively. By far the largest number of government employees were conscripts used (used up) in wars. Can’t get much more dead end that ending up dead or crippled due to wounds from war.

    If governments are going to try and convince draftees that being a soldier and dying for your country isn’t so bad, how are they going to square that with telling people that being a musician or an artist is somehow worse?

  • Charlie

    Your logic is as spotty as your text, Robin.

    Job licensing in this country came about courtesy of a progressive campaign by Andrew Carnegie’s org to give the govt the addtl leverage of being able to hold people’s livelihoods at risk. It has the added benefit of limiting competition. It does very little for consumers, mostly ignoring its obligation to do away with frauds and gougers.

    As for your focus on less paternalism… the War on Drugs is far from a notorious success story. Plus, British liberals tried assigning citizens to jobs following WWII and were roundly rebuffed. Paternalism has no track record to point to.

    However, I used paternalism. My oldest “knew” at age 12 he wanted to be a filmmaker/cinematographer. I told him he’d have to start on an unconventional path. Rather than go to high school, he apprenticed with a filmmaker friend of mine. Now, at 28, he’s making more than his mom and I, both executives, put together working when he wants and in exotic places. I used paternalism to help him figure out how to succeed at the improbable career of his dreams.

  • KCA

    It’s up to parents and children together to determine career path, not the government. Populations, notably minority communities, that have accepted enlarged government interference in their welfare, have done poorly even when compared to impoverished immigrants who don’t speak English. The government is interested in its own growth and longevity, not the well being of your children.

  • pipedreams

    Actually, it’s worse than you think. Not only is there tremendous support for teaching our young to ‘be yourself, follow your bliss, and the money will take care of itself,’ and such stuff, but there is diminishing support for teaching our young (men, mostly) a trade. Traditionally masculine jobs, such as building trades, repairs, and crafts, are being increasingly ‘outsourced’ (at least in SoCal) to imported labor. This leaves our less bookish youth without good prospects for a rewarding life. The educated classes harbor tremendous antipathy to working with their hands, and those who do work with their hands.
    “Dear God, let my son be a frustrated writer, a struggling musician, or an actor who waits tables, but please don’t let him become a plumber!”

  • Occam’s Beard

    How dare people make decisions about their own lives, and what they think is best for them? The utter temerity! Only government bureaucrats know what’s best for you.

  • walrus

    There’s a lot to be said for having a job or career that you love to do, and that you chose because of who you are inside as opposed to what would get you farther in life. John Eldridge said, “Don’t look around and see what the world needs, and then do that. Find what makes you come alive and do that, because what the world really needs is people who are alive.”

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  • Leigh Scott

    I hope this is an exercise in comparative thought. I pray (although I am agnostic) that the point of this is to illustrate that paternalism, especially on the part of the government, is not based on logic, but on knee jerk reaction. We shouldn’t tell people not to be actors, just like we shouldn’t tell people not to do drugs, or have sex. It’s their life and their responsibility to deal with the consequences.

    If not, it is hopelessly misguided. I am a film director. My girlfriend is an actress. We are by no means “A” list or big time, but last year we both cleared six figures and make more than our parents. Of course, if we weren’t good at our jobs, we could have ended up failures. But that is our destiny and our destiny alone.

  • Texan

    It is because of art, acting, and music that my children enjoy going to school. It is because they participate in those activities that they are required to have good grades in their core curriculum.

    As the parent of 4 children, I have encouraged my children to pursue these avenues because it enhances their education. At the same time, I’ve encouraged them to consider their “day job”–my daughter who is a singer and writer is going to school to become a teacher. My other daughter who is a talented musician also plans to become a teacher.

    A friend of mine spends a couple of hours three days a week teaching students piano. She more than pays for her house payment each month. Her husband is free to pursue his entreprenurial dream knowing the house is taken care of and my friend has the rest of her week free to pursue her own interests. Music is the key to their financial stability.

    I have a friend who is an artist who has managed to feed and house his family of 5 children through his art. He’s not a big “name” but he is a hard worker. He’s one of the happiest people I know. Jobs in these fields are not undesirable unless you’re going to sell your soul for fame. Those are the types of jobs that lead to your kid waitressing in Hollywood, hoping to make it big someday. Those are the kinds of jobs parents want their kids to avoid.

    There are plenty of headaches in other fields–ask doctors if they’re encouraging their kids to pursue a career in medicine. Ask the law grad with hundreds of thousands of dollars in debt if he/she is going to be able to pay back those loans. Ask anyone in the construction industry how hard it is to get a job if there’s a significant illegal population working in the area.

  • pashley1411

    A government-sponsored training or job fund would become a government-sponsored limiting-competition fund in nanoseconds.

  • jb

    The entire subject has nothing to do with, nor needs the assistance of, the fascists.marxists in government. To even intimate we need those fools to tell us anything about life, is to admit we are their stooges.

    Pretty sorry reasoning. Do for yourself. If you cannot, you still need to do for yourself.

    (As an aside, I don know why being an agnostic (Greek: without knowledge) would have anything to do with the discussion.

    Prayer (Greek–petition– which can be done toward anyone or any inanimate object, not necessarily a Deity) that gummint won’t do something about anything is like petitioning (praying) the sun not to rise in the AM.

    It’s already a done deal. Now if folks took their constitution seriously, flawed as it is, they could do waway with gummint interference in their lives infinitely quicker than stopping the earth from turning and preventing sunrise.

    Or sunset. 😉

    • TN Bassist

      Actually, come to think of it there was a governmental system that was paternalistic about the career choices of their citizens and only concerned for the gainful employment, meaningful lives, and the common good of all.
      I think it was The Soviet Union.
      To paraphrase Dr. Phil, “How’s that workin’ for ya?”

  • Rich Rostrom

    1) Parental coercion in career choice used to be extremely common and is still common in cultures where children submit to family control.

    2) The vast majority of entertainment workers don’t make close to a living wage. That’s why people speak of a “day job” – it’s what you do during the day to make a living, as opposed to the entertainment work you do at night.

    In 1996 (the last year for which I can find data easily), the Census reported 175,000 people employed as musicians and composers. and
    136,000 actors and directors. That same year there were 889,00 college instructors and 4.7 _million_ K-12 teachers.

    • TN Bassist

      A lot of musicians are in both categories. It’s not that uncommon for a Symphony Player to have several adjunct positions at various colleges. I have a good friend that works as a Trombonist and also is a Middle School Band Director.
      I have had a very successful career for nearly 30 years in the same very competitive Music Town. Teaching has always been part of the equation, some years more than others. Most successful musicians I know or the same way as are many of the Artists, Dancers, and Actors.

  • the permanent newbie

    I have now given my blessing to my (admittedly talented) daughter to pursue a BFA in musical theater, although when she was born I planned to discourage any professional pursuit of the arts. Here’s what’s behind my new thinking:

    1. F. Scott Fitzgerald had it backwards: There are lots of second acts in American lives. If she tries and fails, she’ll go to Plan B. I didn’t get into my dream career until I was 38.

    2. With the economy in the toilet for going on 4 years now, and the “experts” going on about “the New Normal,” it looks like many of those majors leading to Good Steady Careers are nothing of the kind. In that case, why not roll the dice on what she loves rather than a weak compromise? She has no talent for math or engineering, where a girl can write her own ticket.

    Of course, I hope it doesn’t turn out to be too big a mistake…

  • Chester White

    “Actually, there is a strong correlation between depression — particularly mild bipolar disoder — and being an artist. The former seems to cause one become the latter. ”

    Yep, entire books and courses of study on the matter. Check the book “Touched With Fire.”

    • It’s true of every artist I know — myself included

  • No mention of child labor laws?

    Robin previously said that drug paternalism is about sex. And alcohol+caffeine paternalism is about class.

  • Michael Kirkland

    I would argue the premise. We don’t directly allow parents to do any of the things you’re suggesting. What control they do have is a side effect of other powers, and at most they have the right to make an attempt. They can’t sue the parents of another child who befriends theirs without their approval, for example. They can only use other powers to interfere with, and negotiate their non-use with the child.

  • Where does job paternalism exist, elsewhere in the world and throughout history?
    I’m a fan of more experimenting with job paternalism. The lack of such experimentation in the USA in 2011, I think is primarily hedonistic.
    It might have to do with national mythology and identity (we’re the post-slavery better Americans, not the slavery times worse Americans) why job paternalism is a much smaller force than some other types of paternalisms.

  • Sister Y

    The idea of parents choosing careers for children (or, really, making any decisions for children) would be of less concern if grown children had a cause of action against their parents for making poor choices that damage them financially.

  • Meagan

    People should give up jobs as economists and become editors–very poorly written article on a number of levels.

  • TN Bassist

    This is beyond idiocy! Most Professional Musicians I know are highly trained professionals and smart entrepreneurs who market themselves as well as working on their musical skills.
    I personally noticed an uptick in interest in the Arts after the 2007 Financial Meltdown. All of a sudden, that MBA and Finance Degree and the Dream Gig at Goldman-Sachs wasn’t what it was. I’m sure there are Aerodynamic Engineers and White Collar Workers from the Auto Industry in the US who feel the same way. Personally, one of my students changed from Music Business to Music with a Business Emphasis (a Music degree) after he came to the realization that I’d had a better year than his Real Estate Developer Dad who was sitting on several million dollars worth of leveraged property he couldn’t sell.
    You can manage a good career in any field. Being a Rock Star isn’t a viable career option, but being a well-trained Musician who develops good financial habits and realizes that he or she is truly working for themselves surely is.

    • TN Bassist

      If I had taken the sure thing and stayed in the Family Business (a plumbing supply) I would have seen my entire business go down the tubes and been standing in line to apply at Home Depot or Lowe’s or one of the Big Box Stores. That whole line of work has transformed from where it was, just as a lot of the American Work Landscape has and will in the future.
      My Dad was smart in this respect: He said, “You’ll earn more as a happy Musician than as a miserable Plumbing Supply salesman.”
      He was right……