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 of property and contract functions to prevent people from being able to force others to follow their advice. Paternalism is an exception to this more general and typical case.
  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 to others not listening as much to them.
  9. Social workers are 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, with so little control of their medical treatment. Social workers help patients focus on areas where they retain some control. Patients are often “non-compliant”, due in part to wanting to assert control, but as often due 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 more 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 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 who they hope can be allies. and to distance themselves from the low status.

However, 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 enough, and we force people to pick high status associates because they are higher quality as associates.

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 actions tend not to make exceptions for these 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, one should simply empower people B who tend to be more informed to limit or force the actions of people A who tend to be less informed.

You see, paternalism is fundamentally 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 for forcing 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, and the helpfulness of paternalism. Most people are presumably well aware of the usual expected correlation between status and info, and so don’t make errors about that.

As I explained in my last post, we can say something more general regarding 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 A would pick too little of that kind of activity for any given quality level. But our paternalism policies 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 loyalty to and support for the high status, and to 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 relations 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.

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. 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.

Against Irony

Papua New Guinea. There are nearly 850 languages spoken in the country, making it the most linguistically diverse place on earth. … Mountains, jungles and swamps keep villagers isolated, preserving their languages. A rural population helps too: only about 13% of Papuans live in towns. …. Fierce tribal divisions—Papua New Guinea is often shaken by communal violence—also encourages people to be proud of their own languages. The passing of time is another important factor. It takes about a thousand years for a single language to split in two, says William Foley, a linguist. With 40,000 years to evolve, Papuan languages have had plenty of time to change naturally. (more)

British printer who used a mirrored question mark to distinguish rhetorical questions in 1575, and John Wilkins, a British scientist who proposed an inverted exclamation mark to indicate irony in 1668. … The problem with adopting new irony punctuation is that if the people reading you don’t understand it, you’re no better off. … The ironic punctuation mark that the social internet can claim as its own is the sarcasm tilde, as in, “That’s so ~on brand~” … But tildes can feel a bit obvious. For a wryer mood, a drier wit, one might try a more subdued form of ironic punctuation—writing in all lowercase. …

Irony is a linguistic trust fall. When I write or speak with a double meaning, I’m hoping that you’ll be there to catch me by understanding my tone. The risks are high—misdirected irony can gravely injure the conversation—but the rewards are high, too: the sublime joy of feeling purely understood, the comfort of knowing someone’s on your side. No wonder people through the ages kept trying so hard to write it. (more)

Just as the urge to signal loyalty to people nearby has kept New Guinea folks from understanding people over the next mountain, our similar urge pushes us to write in ways that make it hard for those outside our immediate social circles to understand us. Using irony, we sacrifice ease of wide understanding to show loyalty to a closer community. 

Language is like religion, art, and many other customs in this way, helping to bond locals via barriers to wider interaction and understanding. If you think of yourself instead as a world cosmopolitan, preferring to promote world peace and integration via a global culture that avoids hostile isolationist ties to local ethnicities and cultures, then not only should you like world-wide travel, music, literature, emigration, and intermarriage, you should also dislike irony. Irony is the creation of arbitrary language barriers with the sole purpose of preventing wider cultural integration. 

Advice Wiki

People often give advice to others; less often, they request advice from others. And much of this advice is remarkably bad. For example, such as the advice to “never settle” in pursuing your career dreams.

When A takes advice from B, that is often seen as raising the status of B and lowering that of A. As a result, people often resist listening to advice, they ask for advice as a way to flatter and submit, and they give advice as a way to assert their status and goodness. For example, advisors often tell others to do what they did, as a way to affirm that they have good morals, and achieved good outcomes via good choices.

These hidden motives understandably detract from the average quality of advice as a guide to action. And the larger is this quality reduction, the more potential there is for creating value via alternative advice institutions. I’ve previously suggested using decision markets for advice in many contexts. In this post, I want to explore a simpler/cheaper approach: a wiki full of advice polls. (This is like something I proposed in 2013.)

Imagine a website where you could browse a space of decision contexts, connected to each other by the subset relation. For example under “picking a career plan after high school”, there’s “picking a college attendance plan” and under that there’s “picking a college” and “picking a major”. For each decision context, people can submit proposed decision advice, such as “go to the highest ranked college you can get into” for “pick a college”. You and anyone could then vote to say which advice they endorse in which contexts, and you see the current voter distribution over advice opinion.

Assume participants can be anonymous if they so choose, but can also be labelled with their credentials. Assume that they can change their votes at anytime, and that the record of each vote notes which options were available at the time. From such voting records, we might see not just the overall distribution of opinion regarding some kind of decision, but also how that distribution varies with quality indicators, such as how much success a person has ave achieved in related life areas. One might also see how advice varies with level of abstraction in the decision space; is specific advice different from general advice?

Of course such poll results aren’t plausibly as accurate as those resulting from decision markets, at least given the same level of participation. But they should also be much easier to produce, and so might attract far more participation. The more bad are our usual sources of advice, the better the chance that these polls could offer better advice. Compared to asking your friends and family, these distributions of advice less suffer from particular people pushing particular agenda, and anonymous advice may suffer less from efforts to show off. At least it might be worth a try.