Search Results for: paternalism

Rulesy Folks Push Paternalism

“The Tudor landowning justice of the peace (J.P.) was the greatest of of paternalists, rivaled only by the Tudor judges and privy councilors who who controlled the J.P.s. … They wanted to regulate the prices of bread, beer, and wool, the games one played, the amount one drank, the nature of one’s apprenticeship, and the clothes one wore. They arrested drunkards, fined those who did not attend church, and penalized the adulterous. …  a paternal state … only the 20th century has come to eclipse it” (more)

I spent most of the day Tuesday reading papers on paternalism, which was the topic of my job talk paper long ago, and one that I’ve thought a lot about over the years. Alas, almost all writings on the topic seek to argue for or against paternalism, rather than trying to explain it. Now if it were typically efficient, that would in fact be a reasonable explanation. And there are many papers that reasonably argue for the plausible efficiency of mild paternalistic “nudges”, weakly enforced.

But in actual fact we see a huge amount of quite strong paternalism, vigorously enforced. People are greatly discouraged from suicide, and prevented from selling themselves into slavery. Professional licensing limits who can do what, and sex laws limit who can do what with who. Censorship limits what you can read or see. Regulations limit the availability and uses of land, buildings, cars, planes, power plants, food, drugs, and much much more. To prevent “exploitation”, many prices are regulated, purchase is required of schools, doctors, and more. Finally, contract law greatly limited the kinds and levels of penalties that contracts can impose, and the kinds of contracts to which you can agree. And by far the most common rationale offered for all of this is that you are being protected from hurting yourself, not from hurting others. 

This is another one of those subjects where everyone thinks they know the answer, but they all know different answers, almost none of which actually hold up under scrutiny. The most commonly offered explanation is that regulators know more than those they regulate. But then why can’t regulators just tell what they know, such as via very visible certification? If the info for certification is underproduced, why not subsidize it. If it is too easy to forget to check certification, why not offer “would have banned“ stores, where customers must pass a test showing they understand it only sells stuff is otherwise have been banned by regulations. 

Of course it is plausible that some parties extract big selfish gains from these rules, and we do see many examples, such as professionals whose wages are increased via the supply cuts caused by professional licensing. But we need to explain why most everyone else goes along – most actual paternalism is in fact very popular among most people. So for that we’ll need benefits that are much more widely distributed. (In the usual “Bootleggers and Baptists” story, we need to explain the Baptists.) 

The closest I can find to an efficiency explanation is the idea that people make random but correlated mistakes, at which times they are too proud to listen to advice, and at other times they can’t accept that this might later happen to them. Temporary mistakes are easy to fix by requiring modest waiting periods, and temporary individual mistakes can be fixed by requiring groups of associates to choose something together. (Or equivalently, close associates who can veto individual choices.)

But the hypothesis here is that every once in a while a whole group of associates will all go kinda crazy, a “childish” kind of craziness which may last for quite a while. In this rare but correlated childish-crazy mode, this hypothesis says people tend to be especially unwilling to listen to advice, perhaps out of pride. Maybe they see themselves in a status contest with authorities, and are eager to show independence or defiance. Furthermore, people somehow just can’t accept that this problem might happen later to them, and so aren’t inclined to voluntarily choose to commit ahead of time to some more local paternalistic process which would protect them later.

That’s the best I can come up with, and yes this could in fact explain some paternalism. However, I just can’t see it as sufficient to explain the actual typical huge levels of paternalism that we see. So I must look elsewhere. A year ago, I favored this story: 

Thus another possible explanation for min-quality regulations is that, by officially declaring common lower class choices to be bad choices, regulators support upper class claims to be better people. And by forcing everyone to visibly accept this declaration via their not visibly defying the bans, everyone appears to support this claim that elite choices are better choices. … Why would so many non-elites support these policies as voters? Plausibly because they aspire to elite status, and by publicly displaying their agreement with elite attitudes, they affirm that they are themselves good candidates for higher status. (More)

Prestige is a key human process, and a key element is that we all seek to copy the behavior of the prestigious, and to associate with them. So a strong eagerness to push everyone to do what elites do, and what they say that one aught to do, seems completely to be expected. 

Even so, this explanation has still seemed somewhat insufficient to me. There is so so much paternalism! So in this post, let me add one more factor that I think complements the above stories, but also adds substantially to them. 

The key idea is that there are many “rulesy” people in the world. (Think of Sheldon from Big Bang Theory and Dwight from The Office.) These people specialize in learning of and even creating rules, so that they can then find and reveal violations of these rules around them. This allows them to beat on their rivals, and also to raise their own status. It obviously raises their dominance via the power they wield, but they prefer to be instead seen as prestigious, enforcing rules whose purpose is more clearly altruistic. And what could be more altruistic than keeping people from hurting themselves? 

So many people who are especially good at noticing and applying rules, good at finding potential violations, good at framing situations as rule violations, and willing to at least gossip about violators, are eager for a supply of apparently-paternalism-motived rules they can enforce. So they take suggestions by elites regarding what is good behavior and work to turn them into rules they can enforce. They push to turn norms into laws, and to make norms out of the weak behavior patterns of elites, or from their patterns of praise and criticism. 

Now think of the incentives of observers. A declares that B has violated a rule, and audience C has a choice to support A or B in this situation. The rule might be obsolete, A may be stretching its meaning to fit this case, or declaring a new rule from related prior cases. Even so, if B is associated with C, it may seem like corruption for C to support B. If the rule is justified as protecting some folks, then by supporting B you seem to not care about those protected folks. And maybe folks will suspect C of wanting to violate this rule themselves, or of already having violated it. Most of these considerations seem to lean toward supporting A in their case against B.

For example, maybe at first some elites sometimes wear hats. Then they and others start to praise hat-wearers. Then more folks start to wear hats, and get proud of how they are good hat people. Good candidates for promotion to elite they are. Then hat fans start to insinuate that people who don’t wear hats are not the best sort of people in various ways, and are only hurting themselves. They say that word needs to get out about the advantages of hats. And those irresponsible people arguing against hats really need to be dealt with – everyone should be told that their arguments mostly don’t meet the highest possible standards of scientific rigor. (Though neither do most pro-hat arguments.)

It becomes a matter of pride to teach your children to wear hats. And to have hats taught in school. And to include the lack of hats in lists of problems that problem people have. Hat fans start to push the orgs of which they are part to promote hats, sometimes even requiring hats at org functions. Finally it is suggested that wouldn’t it be simpler and more efficient to just have the government require hats. Then foreigners who visit us won’t think we are such backward non-hat people. And its really for their own good, as we all know.

At every step along this path, people can gain by pushing for stricter and stronger hat norms and rules. They are good people, pushing a good thing, which just happens to let them dump harder on rivals. Which is plausibly why we tend to end up with just too many overly restrictive rules. Rules rise with the ratchet of crises that can be blamed on problems said to be fixed by adding new rules. And between the crises, we rarely take away or weaken our rules. 

This sort of tendency to create excess rules can help to explain why many organizations seems to be afflicted by excess “legalism”, including government.

And I’m not sure exactly how, but I suspect that this process is mutually supportive of processes that push for a lot of discretion in rule enforcement: 

To the extent that there are rules, there seems to be a preference for authorizing some people to have discretion to make arbitrary choices, regarding which they are not held strongly to account. … Most people mainly favor discretion … to project to associates an image of being the sort of person who is confidently supports the elites who have discretion, and who expects in general to benefit from their discretion. … The sort of people who are eager to have a fair neutral objective decision-making process tend to be losers who don’t expect to be able to work the informal system of favors well. (More)

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Dominance Explains Paternalism

My Ph.D. is in formal political theory, but I’ve come to realize that it is usually best to think of political behavior not as some different kind of thing, but instead as an extension of or variation on ordinary behavior. This seems to me especially true for paternalism, which I’ve spend much effort pondering. I did a game theory analysis of it for my job talk long ago, and Bryan Caplan just reviewed what seems to be a nice book puzzling over “behavioral” explanations. But on reflection a key explanation seems pretty simple.

In our personal lives, we all know that some of the people around us are more “control freaks”; they push harder for control over what they and their associates do. First they push to control their own lives, then they push for more control of shared context and choices, like which restaurant a group goes to, and finally they push for control over the lives of others. Such as by nagging and berating others re what to eat or wear, or with whom to associate. Or by becoming official leaders and authorities, with formal power to make people do what they say.

I just did two polls that say that most of us think that this control freak pressure tends to hurt associates, and also that control freaks tend more to be “do-gooders”, who talk more about making the world better, and more give that rationale for things they do:

Dominance seems to me the obvious interpretation here. Like most animals, humans strive to dominate each other, in order to rise in the local “pecking order”. And control over ourselves and others not only brings many direct benefits, it is widely taken as one of the strongest signs of dominance and non-submission. But unlike other animals, humans have norms against overt dominance and submission, and norms promoting pro-social behavior, that helps others. So we do push to dominate, but we pretend that we are actually just trying to help. And as usual, we are typically not consciously aware of our hypocrisy. In our mind, we are mainly aware of how they are doing the wrong things, and how they would be so much better off if only we could make them do things our way.

It is not just individuals who try to dominate to gain status; groups coordinate to dominate together as well. For example, parents coordinate to dominate their kids. So we push for our groups to have autonomy, and also control over other groups. And so in politics, where our main motive is to show loyalty to our allies, we each push for our political coalitions to have more self-control, and more control over other groups. So when there is an option for “regulators” or other authorities to take more control over ordinary lives, we tend to support that when we see those authorities as part of our coalition, and those “helped” as part of rival coalitions. Else we may resist.

Of course we actually do often need leaders to make central decisions that effect many others. And people do sometimes make bad decisions that can be improved via pressures from others around them. So dominance isn’t the only cause of leadership or paternalism. This is another example of a key principle: people can only successfully pretend to have motive X to cover real motive Y if sometimes X really is a substantial motive. “The dog ate my homework” works better as an excuse than “The dragon ate my homework.” For a cover to work, it has to be sufficiently plausible. So all the motives we pretend to have really do apply to some people at some times; just not nearly as often as we suggest.

So the claim is not that paternalism or dominant leaders can never be appropriate. Instead, the claim is that there’s a strong tendency to try to justify other more selfish and harmful behaviors via such needs. So we need to hold a much higher standard on leadership than “we should do whatever leaders say because we need leaders.” And we need to hold a higher standard on paternalism than “you should do what regulators say because they are authorities.” Leaders and authorities should be accountable to make their choices actually help via more than a mere dominance struggle for power to grab such positions.

In small firms, leaders are often given rewards that depend on the overall success of those firms. And subordinates who feel they are treated badly may well leave. Together, these can greatly temper leader temptations to use powers of their dominant positions to seek to gain status over their subordinates, relative to actually helping their groups. And in the distant past, in small groups within very war-like areas, dominant leaders faced related outside threats of military competition, and of subordinates running away to other nearby areas.

But today in large mostly-peaceful nations, political leaders tend to lack these other disciplines to temper their tyranny. Which is why it becomes so important today to find other ways to hold political leaders and authorities accountable, to limit their arbitrary dominance. Such as via elections, law, and property rights. I’ve tried to explore new methods, such as futarchy and vouching. But until they are fielded we should keep the old ways, and hold our leaders and authorities to much higher standards than “because I said so”.

In our society today, paternalistic authorities often claim that they are disciplined not so much by profit, voters, or law, but by “science”. You see, they only make people do things when “science” says that is for the best. Having seen how such “science” actually works in these contexts, I’m relatively skeptical of this as an effective discipline today. Too often, this is just a way to justify applying the widespread opinions of social classes and coalitions with which regulators ally.

Added 1p: Teaching kids to play a musical instrument is a striking example of paternalism. Even though data doesn’t suggest that it improves discipline or other academic performance, many passionately want to force this on not only their own kids, but also the kids of others, even those who feel strongly that they don’t want to play. Though most adults enjoy listening to music, few of them choose to play instruments, especially among those who were forced.

Yet people argue that we must force all kids to play so that they can enjoy music as adults and be more attractive as mates, or so that we can find the few good musicians, or so that we can increase the supply of music. Which seem pretty laughable arguments. More plausibly people identify with musicians and cultures that respect them, and so want to force others to respect them as well, especially kids whose status contributes to their own personal status.

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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. Continue reading "Paternalism Is About Status" »

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A Model of Paternalism

Twenty years ago this month I started my job here at GMU. My “job talk paper”, which got me this job, was on a game theory model of paternalism. While the journal that published it insisted that it be framed as a model of drug regulation, it was in fact far more general. (Why would a journal be reluctant to publish a general result? The econ journal status hierarchy dictates that only top journals may publish general results.) Oddly, I’ve never before discussed that paper here (though I discussed related concepts here). So here goes.

Here’s the abstract:

One explanation for drug bans is that regulators know more than consumers do about product quality. But why not just communicate the information in their ban, perhaps via a “would have banned” label? Because product labeling is cheap-talk, any small market failure tempts regulators to lie about quality, inducing consumers who suspect such lies to not believe everything they are told. In fact, when regulators expect market failures to result in under-consumption of a drug, and so would not ban it for informed consumers, regulators ex ante prefer to commit to not banning this drug for uninformed consumers.

Consider someone choosing how much alcohol or caffeine to drink per day on average. The higher is the quality of alcohol or caffeine as a drink, in terms of food, fun, productivity and safety, then the more they should want to drink it. However, they are ignorant about this quality parameter, and so must listen to advice from someone who knows more. Furthermore, this advisor doesn’t exactly share their interests; for the same value of quality, this advisor might want them to drink more or less than they would want to drink. Thus the advisor has a reason to be not entirely honest with their advice, and so the listener has a reason to not believe everything they are told.

When the advisor can only advise, we have a standard “cheap talk signaling game”. In equilibrium, the advisor picks one of a limited number of quality options. For example, they might only say either “bad” or “good”. The person being advised will believe this crude advice, but would not believe more precise advice, due to the incentive to lie. The closer are the interests of these two people, the more distinctions the advisor can make and be believed, and thus the better off both of them are on average.

My innovation was to give the advisor the additional option to, instead of offering advice, ban the person from drinking alcohol or caffeine. The result of a ban is a low (though maybe not zero) level of the activity. When quality happens to be low, the advisor would rather ban than give the lowest possible advice. This is in part because the listener expects the advisor to ban when quality is low. So even when their interests differ by only a little, the advisor bans often, far more often than they would if the listener was perfectly informed about quality.

My model wasn’t about alcohol in particular; it applies to any one-dimensional choice of an activity level, a choice influenced by an uncertain one-dimensional quality level. Thus my model can help us understand why people placed into a role where they can either advise or ban some activity would often ban. Even when both parties are fully rational, and even when their interests only differ by small amounts. The key is that even small differences can induce big lies and an expectation of frequent bans, which force the advisor to ban often because extreme advice will not be believed.

My model allows for relatively general functional forms for the preferences of both parties, and how those depend on quality. It can also handle the case when the advisor has the option to “require” the product, resulting in some high consumption level. (Though I never modeled the case where the advisor has both the option to ban or require the product, in addition to giving advice.) The model can also be easily generalized to varying levels of info for both parties, and to random errors in the choices made by both parties. The essential results don’t change much in those variations.

The main theorem that I prove in my paper is for the case where the advisor’s differing interest makes that advisor prefer a higher activity level for any given quality level. For example, the advisor might be an employer and the listener might be their employee. In this case, for any given quality level, the employer might prefer their employee to drink more caffeine than the employee would choose, in order to be more productive at work. What I prove is that on average both parties are better off in the game where the advisor is not able to ban the activity; this is because the option to ban reduces the activity level on average.

Similarly, when the advisor prefers a lower activity level for any given quality level, both parties are better off when the advisor is not able to require the activity. This could apply to the case where the activity is alcohol, and the advisor is the government. Due to the possibility of auto accidents, the government could prefer less alcohol consumption for any given level of alcohol quality.

This main theorem has direct policy relevance for things like medicines, readings, and investments. If policy makers tend to presume that people on average consume too few medicines, read too little, and invest too little, then they should regret having the ability to ban particular medicines, readings, or investments, as this ability will on average make both sides worse off.

So that’s my model. In my next post, I’ll discuss how much this actually helps us understand where we do and don’t see paternalism in the world.

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Paternalism can be kind, just not to present-you

You may want to file this under ‘incredibly obvious’, but I haven’t seen it noted elsewhere.

Liberals and libertarians have an instinctive aversion to paternalism. Their key objection is: how can anyone else be expected to know what is good for you, better than you do?

This is usually true, but it neglects a coherent justification for many paternalistic policies that doesn’t require that anyone know more than you. The paternalist could be fine with their policy being bad for ‘present-you’ if it benefits ‘future-you’ even more. But don’t you care about your future self’s welfare too? Sure, but maybe not as much as they do, relative to your current welfare!

Confusion about the intent of the paternalistic policy is generated by the fact that it is natural to say “this policy exists to help you”, without noting which instance of ‘you’ it is meant to help – you now, you tomorrow, you in ten years’ time, and so on.

While this justification would make sense especially often where people engaged in ‘hyperbolic discounting’ and as a result were ‘time inconsistent’, it does not rely on that. All it requires is that,

  • there are things you could do now that would benefit your future self, at the expense of your present self, and;
  • the paternalists’ ‘altruistic’ discount rate for the target’s welfare is lower than the discount rate the target has for their own welfare.

The first is certainly true, while the latter is often true in my experience.

In the near-far construal theory often used on this blog, us-now and immediate gratification are both ‘near’, while ourselves in the future, other people, and other people in the future are all ‘far’. In far mode we will want to encourage other folks to act toward their future selves in ways our far view thinks they ought to – usually patiently.

More intuitively: it’s easier to stick to a commitment to help a friend stay on their diet, than it is to stay to our diet ourselves. We don’t enjoy seeing our friends go without ice cream, but we like to see them reach their and our idealised goals even more. As La Rochefoucauld observed, “We all have strength enough to bear the misfortunes of others.” You could add that we all have strength enough to bear the delayed gratification of others.

If a paternalist really does have a lower discount rate in this way, they could justify all kinds of interventions that benefit someone’s future self: preventing suicide, reducing smoking, encouraging exercise, requiring people to save for emergencies and retirement, and so on. I often find these policies distasteful, but as I support a moral discount rate of zero (on valuable experiences), and almost all people are impatient in their own lives, I can’t justify a blanket opposition. We don’t give people an unrestricted freedom to harm their children, or strangers, just because they don’t care much about them. Why then should we give a young woman unrestricted freedom to hurt her far-off 60 year old self, just because they happen to pass through the same body at different points in time? I care about the 60 year old too, perhaps even more than that young woman does, relative to herself.

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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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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. Continue reading "Paternalism Is About Respect" »

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Paternalism Is Hard

I’ve posted many times on paternalism (e.g., here and here), so was hopeful when I saw that the latest Cato Unbound is on paternalism.  Alas it is mostly heat, not light.  Glen Whitman warns of slippery slopes, crude politicians, and biased question framing, and asks how behavioralists choose among inconsistent consumer preferences.  Richard Thaler responds that there is no slope and that paternalism is sometimes inevitable.  Bryan Caplan complains that Thaler and company only ever work to increase paternalism:

Why do Sunstein and Thaler use their meme to make extra paternalism a little less objectionable, instead of making existing paternalism a lot less objectionable?

Arnold Kling agrees, as does Scott Sumner:

The real test of libertarian paternalism will come when we see how often it is advocated as a way of softening hard paternalism.

As far as I’m concerned, all of these authors avoid the core hard problem.  Yes paternalism can be a matter of degree, but even so we need principles by which to choose what degree of paternalism is appropriate in what context.  Just repeating “More” and “Less” quickly gets tiresome.  Such principles need to explicitly take into account the fact that organizations can give folks advice instead of limiting their choices.  And any analysis based on the idea that folks can be irrationally deaf to advice is an intellectual sham if it doesn’t consider similar deafness by organization decision makers. (And vice versa.)

Added 9Apr: David Henderson shows Thaler and company have argued for reduced paternalism.

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Overconfidence & Paternalism

Paul Graham tries to explain paternalism: 

Parents know they’ve concealed the facts about sex, and many at some point sit their kids down and explain more. But few tell their kids about the differences between the real world and the cocoon they grew up in. Combine this with the confidence parents try to instill in their kids, and every year you get a new crop of 18 year olds who think they know how to run the world.

Don’t all 18 year olds think they know how to run the world? Actually this seems to be a recent innovation, no more than about 100 years old. In preindustrial times teenage kids were junior members of the adult world and comparatively well aware of their shortcomings. They could see they weren’t as strong or skillful as the village smith. In past times people lied to kids about some things more than we do now, but the lies implicit in an artificial, protected environment are a recent invention. Like a lot of new inventions, the rich got this first. Children of kings and great magnates were the first to grow up out of touch with the world. Suburbia means half the population can live like kings in that respect.  …

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Paternalism Parable

My newly published parable, saying we should be clearer on what justifies our paternalism, or be less paternalistic:

Imagine finding yourself near someone about to walk off a cliff. If he seems distracted enough to not notice a crucial bend in the cliff edge, you might feel quite justified in grabbing his arm, to stop him from falling. You might even expect his gratitude.

But what if he seems well aware of the cliff before him? Well, if he seems crazy, either permanently insane or temporarily drugged, you might still grab him. You might also grab him if you knew his family would miss him terribly. In such cases you might at least expect gratitude from his family, his caretaker, or his future sober self. And if you were morally outraged enough by the very idea of walking off a cliff, you might grab him no matter who was grateful or offended.

But what if, aside from the whole cliff thing, he seems no crazier or immoral than most? What if his action mainly affected only him? What if the cliff was only five feet tall, or 20 feet tall over deep water, or if he walked near the cliff at what he considered a close but safe distance? You might still think of grabbing his arm, if you thought you understood something important that he did not. Perhaps you know the wind is unusually gusty, or the ground is unusually slippery. Perhaps there is no time to explain, or he doesn’t understand your language.

But what if he does understand you, and there is time enough to say "Watch out! That cliff is dangerous." If he dismisses your concern and does not back away, would that justify your intervention? Well we can’t very well allow anyone to intervene in anyone else’s life anytime they feel like it. So if you persist in grabbing we might let him sue you for assault.

But what if you were not alone? What if a great many of you also thought him careless? What if you lived in a democracy and could get enough voters to pass a law banning cliff-walking? Perhaps your law requires tall fences, or threatens to jail those who approach cliffs. Are you justified now?  Even in this situation, you are arrogant if you do not at least consider the possibility the cliff-walker knows what he is doing. …

Read the whole thing here.

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