Paternalism Is About Status

… children, whom he finds delightful and remarkably self-sufficient from the age of 4. He chalks this up to the fact that they are constantly lied to, can go anywhere and in their first years of life are given pretty much anything they please. If the baby wants the butcher knife, the baby gets the butcher knife. This novel approach may not sound like appropriate parenting, but Kulick observes that the children acquire their self-sufficiency by learning to seek out their own answers and by carefully navigating their surroundings at an early age. … the only villagers whom he’s ever seen beat their children are the ones who left to attend Catholic school. (more)

Bofi forager parenting is quite permissive and indulgent by Western standards. Children spend more time in close physical contact with parents, and are rarely directed or punished by parents. Children are allowed to play with knives, machete, and campfires without the warnings or interventions of parents; this permissive patently style has been described among other forager groups as well. (more)

Much of the literature on paternalism (including my paper) focuses on justifying it: how much can a person A be helped by allowing a person B to prohibit or require particular actions in particular situations? Such as parents today often try to do with their children. Most of this literature focuses on various deviations from simple rational agent models, but my paper shows that this is not necessary; B can help A even when both are fully rational. All it takes is for B to sometimes know things that A does not.

However, this focus on justification distracts from efforts to explain the actual variation in paternalism that we see around us. Sometimes third parties endorse and support the ability of B to prohibit or require actions by A, and sometimes third parties oppose and discourage such actions. How can we best explain which happens where and when?

First let me set aside situations where A authorizes B to, at some future date, limit or require actions by A. People usually justify this in terms of self-control, i.e., where A today disagrees with future A’s preferences. To me this isn’t real paternalism, which I see as more essentially about the extra info that B may hold.

Okay, let’s start with a quick survey of some of the main observed correlates of paternalism.

  1. While forager parents were not very paternalistic toward kids, farmer and industry era parents have become much more paternalistic, and are especially so toward younger kids. To a lessor extent, we are also somewhat paternalistic toward the elderly, especially older ones. Being economically self-sufficient often triggers much less paternalism.
  2. Much of the law, including property, contract, and tort, functions to prevent people from forcing others to follow their advice. Paternalism is an exception to this more general and typical rule.
  3. We are much more sympathetic toward paternalism regarding the poor, stupid, and low educated. Rich enough people are excused from investment regulations, for example. Many regulations only apply to those who can’t manage the complex paperwork needed to excuse them, and others can be relatively easily evaded by the clever. Many regulations are hardly enforced at all, and thus only punish those with too little social intelligence to notice this fact, or too much sincerity to act on it.
  4. We tend to be more paternalistic regarding consumer choices in response to business, especially large businesses, relative to choices that respond to others. For example there’s far less support for paternalism regarding choices in response to offers by charities, religions, schools, clubs, friends, family, and lovers.
  5. Many of the following can be seen, at least in part, as paternalism by governments re customers: product & service regulation, investment regulation, building codes, professional licensing, limits on who voters can elect, limits on allowed contracts, obstacles to emmigration, and banned media.
  6. Paternalism is sometimes justified in terms of emotional irreversible choices by the young, choices that have large consequences made under great ignorance. Yet in our society we see less inclination for paternalism regarding lovers and marriage, moving to new cities or nations, or pursuing risky careers such as in music, art, or acting.
  7. Health and safety are especially popular rationales for paternalism, and yet there’s little regulation of quite dangerous sports like mountain climbing, or base jumping. About 1% of those who climb Everest die, for example.
  8. My wife is a social worker, and she tells me that doctors are the medical professionals who treat patients most paternalistically. Some just declare their advice without even giving reasons, and doctors often don’t bother to notice whether patients understand their words. There’s more paternalism by everyone toward poor, stupid, and low educated patients, who get worse outcomes due in part to others not listening as much to them.
  9. Social workers are relatively low status among medical professionals, and they take the most effort to ask patients what they want, to present advice in terms of options, and to explain advice in simple words. Medical patients often complain of feeling out of control, having so little control of their lives due to medical treatment. Social workers help patients focus on life areas where they retain more control. Patients are often “non-compliant”, due in part to wanting to assert control, and in part to not understanding medical instructions.
  10. When a top executive announces that they will retire in six months, all the sudden people stop asking for meetings with them to ask them for advice.
  11. In general, people seem eager to give advice to others, and are often reluctant to be seen as following advice, especially from rivals or lower status people. People often prefer advice from high status people like celebrities, relative to those who who have more expertise in the topic area.
  12. Rules re who voters can elect or listen to tend to elevate locals and the old, and to punish the young, foreigners, and business.

Okay, there’s a lot of variation here to be explained, and no doubt many factors contribute. Even so, we can and should ask: what are the biggest contributions?

The most obvious pattern I see is social status. Regarding paternalism by B on A, we are more likely to support paternalism by high status person B regarding a low status person A. And when A’s acton is to choose a person C, an act which benefits C, we are more likely to support paternalism that forces the choice C to be higher status.

Even with simple advice taken voluntarily, the advice giver tends to rise in status and the advice receiver tends to fall in status. It seems plausible that policies which force people to adopt advice can be seen as making this effect stronger. That is, if you are forced to take someone else’s advice, instead of accepting it voluntarily, that lowers your status even more and raises their status even more.

As humans care a lot about the social status of themselves and their allies and rivals, the simplest most straight-forward explanation for status-related paternalism support is that people use paternalism policy as a way to influence who has what status, to show their support for high status folks they hope will become allies. and to distance themselves from the low status.

However, people tend to deny having this motive, and some will argue that we instead use status mainly as a proxy for info and quality. That is, we force people to take the advice of high status people because they are better informed, we don’t force high status people to take advice from others as they are informed well enough, and we force people to pick high status associates because those associates are higher quality.

But this flies in the face of all that we know about the theory of paternalism. First, we know a great many situations in which higher status people are not the best informed about particular actions, and yet our paternalism  policies tend not to make exceptions for such situations. And as high status associates tend to cost more, they aren’t always the most cost-effective associates to choose.

More importantly, our best theories about the process of paternalism, such as my game theory model, just do not in any clear or direct way support the claim that, to help people A, it is better to empower more informed people B to limit or force the actions of people A, especially when the A tend to be less informed.

You see, paternalism is fundamentally about the choice between recommending and forcing advice, and thus it is about the errors that person A would make regarding the advice by person B in a particular situation. If A correctly estimates how much info is embodied in B’s advice, then A’s action after listening to advice from B will embody that info, leaving no need to force A to take B’s advice. But we know of no simple reliable patterns regarding the errors that A will make regarding B advice, patterns we could use to set helpful paternalism policy. We certainly don’t know of simple patterns in terms of who has more info overall, or who has a higher social status. Most people are presumably well aware of the usual expected correlation between status and info, and so don’t make big errors about that.

As I outlined in my last post, we can say something more general about the usefulness of paternalism in terms of the direction of the differing interests of the two parties. For example, giving B the power to ban an activity is worse for both parties when B thinks that A would pick too little of that kind of activity for any given quality level. But don’t to much to explain our paternalism policies, as those don’t seem to have any obvious relation to indicators of this interest difference sign.

Thus for now, I’ll stick with the simple status story, that we justify paternalism in terms of how it will help A, but actually support paternalism mostly for status reasons: to raise the status of some, lower the status of others, show our support for the high status, and distance ourselves from the low status. Sometimes that happens to help A, and other times it happens to hurt A, but it isn’t fundamentally designed to do either.

Note that paternalism illustrates the complex relation between prestige and dominance, the two subcomponents of status. Freely following someone’s advice would be an affirmation of their prestige, but forcing others to take your advice is an act of dominance. We are apparently often comfortable giving the power of dominance to people who would otherwise be treated as prestigious.

Added 23Sep: See also this.

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