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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