Bryan Caplan  

Looking for an Honest Job

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I just watched the excellent Assassination of Richard Nixon. Sam Bicke, the bungling wannabe assassin played by Sean Penn, has a bunch of gripes against the world. But first and foremost, he wants a job where he'll never have to lie. Which leads to the obvious question: Why oh why is Bicke a salesman? Why is a man who values honesty so highly in an occupation notorious for shading the truth?

His response, I suppose, would be that he has no choice. But common sense and economics declare this a cop-out. There are lots of jobs out there that don't require dishonesty, aren't there?

My immediate response is to point to my own occupation. As an economics professor, I never feel like I have to lie. But on second thought, when I was trying to get my Ph.D. and earn tenure, life wasn't so simple. I didn't lie, but in order to get ahead, I pretended to be more interested in the subject of my dissertation - and more admiring of my precursors - than I really was. If I were at a less supportive department, I might have felt pressure to keep pretending until I had tenure.

In any case, Bicke was hardly qualified to become a university professor. So to rephrase my question, what honest jobs are out there that require no more than a high school degree? Here are a few candidates:

  • Construction worker (not sales, of course, but doing the physical labor; but perhaps your boss would tell you to cut corners?)

  • Restaurant server (worse case scenario - your boss asks you to serve food that somebody dropped)

  • Librarian (worst case scenario? I can't think of one!)

  • Assembly line worker (lying about your mistakes might make your life easier, but your boss wouldn't order you to lie)

    Question for Discussion: If you were an employment counselor, what occupation would you have recommended to Bicke?

    P.S. If you watch the movie, you'll notice that Bicke feels perfectly comfortable lying for his own benefit. He only mentally suffers when he feels pressured to lie for the benefit of others!


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    COMMENTS (11 to date)
    alcibiades writes:

    What I wonder is how so many libertarians, who believe, if a good entrepreneur has sufficient capital, they can accomplish anything (buy their own island and establish a libertarian paradise?) -- anyway, how they can satisfy themselves as mere mouthpieces to a mostly-prejudiced, backwards-thinking populace that will never listen to them anyway, or if they do, will believe a common demagogue the next day. As Bryan has pointed out, the electorate isn't "near enough to hte action" to ever "figure out" politics, so why even bother explaining things to them from on high. When are libertarians going to band together and buy the bahamas? among other things...

    Well, I'd say something math-related (I haven't seen the movie so I can't comment on the mental capabilities of the character). Math is like economics but without the political implications. Maybe something like basic actuary work...

    There's also the issue of lying by omission versus outright telling a lie. Serving dropped food is only problematic if the customer asks you about it, right? ;-)

    As for librarians, it's a though one. I guess they have to lie to cover their own asses regarding inventory discrepancies. I don't know.

    Regarding your PhD years, I'm sorry you had trouble with it. I know only 3 people who are non-austrian anarcho-capitalists and 2 of them are us. Do we look like a group of people that needs to be politically persecuted, in the academia of all places? :-) Anyway, I'll start my PhD in about 4-5 months, hopefully, and I'll also have to dodge the flak from my former-soviet-planner teachers (some of them, anyway)

    Becky Clayton writes:

    Actually, you need a master's degree to be a librarian. Just about every person that you see working in a library (often even the people behind the circulation desk) has a master's. The degree title is Master of Library Science (MLS). The people who don't have master's degrees are usually unpaid volunteers.

    Tracy W writes:

    Well if we assume that Sam Bicke won't feel an urge to lie to cover his own backside if he stuffs up, there's heaps of jobs. Some ideas:

    House cleaner (or pretty much any cleaning job).
    The only situation I can think of where your employer might want you to lie is to cover up a crime. But that could apply to any job.

    Lawn mower (unlike a house cleaner you're not seeing so closely into people's homes, so the likelihood of your employer asking you to lie to cover up a crime you've discovered is less.)

    Bus driver.

    Checkout operator.

    Garbage collecter.

    Hair dresser (assuming you're a good one and can make your clients look heaps better after a cut).

    Electricity system controller (because if you lie about your work you'll be found out really soon).

    Self-employed plumber (I'd love a plumber who didn't lie when he tells me what time he'll be there - plus he'd be saving more lives and doing more good for human health than he would as a doctor).

    Oh no, hairdresser is right out, Tracy!

    Also, I notice this tendency to think only of low-status jobs. Is that because you think having a high status job implies some lying, or is it because you think people who aren't willing to lie don't deserve to get well-paid, respected jobs? :-)

    Robert Speirs writes:

    I've noticed almost all librarians are wacko liberals. To survive in that environment you would have to at least pretend to agree with that perversion. If you didn't pretend to have some sympathy for the hobos who infest most libraries, you'd also be in major trouble. No matter what your political sympathies, you would have to be able to restrain yourself from making an honest comment when someone checked out, say, a Michael Moore screed, or, on the liberal side, an Ayn Rand treatise.

    dana writes:

    the notion that just because a person is smart and can score high on GREs and LSATS demands that they enter a "smart" career is detrimental to people of a certain character and reflects a truly elitist notion of work. all of the non-g laden, non "talking" professions are PERFECTLY ADEQUATE LINES OF WORK and people should not be dissuaded from following them if thats what their character demands

    when i was in college and law school NO ONE ever mentioned to me the importance of honesty or ability to lie as character traits in career choice, or the ability to change gears mentally very very quickly in the flow of speaking or acting. almost all of the "knowledge professions" require some deception on the part of the professional, doctors scheduling unnecessary follow up appointments, real estate agents lying about everything to up their commission, brokers pumping up a new stock to make a sale etc.

    after law school it became apparent that while i was certainly smart enough to pass the tests and understand the concepts i had absolutely no ability to lie or "cover" on the fly in interpersonal situation nor was i comfortable with the unbelievable amount of lying even the smaller social security disability or bankruptcy claim seemed to involve. to this day i cannot lie in the face of a direct question and cannot make up a story quickly, the only way i can "lie" is to omit or avoid or if i have lots of time to construct a lie to my own satisfaction.

    i actually ended up being the night manager of a boutique video store that specialized in art films for six years afterwards and they were the happiest years of my life. i was able to use my drive to be a knowledge expert to memorize our entire film catalogue and had a loyal following of customers who wouldnt touch a movie box without my say so. money? negligible--life satisfaction--immeasurable. i was able to spend all of my free time (which i had lots of, as low paying low skill jobs tend to be 9-5 type, as opposed to knowledge professional "careers" that eat up your entire existence) continuing my education on my own, just because i had a non prestigious job did not mean i had lost my intellectual curiousity.

    Giovanni writes:

    Librarian? You typically need a masters degree to do that.

    Nutritionist/Physical Trainer/Yoga instructor/music teacher/foreign language teacher: No formal degree requirements but you do need some talent.
    Massage Therapist: You need a license, but it's a relatively small barrier to entry.
    Software developer or QA: It's common to do this without a college degree, but you do need a certain mindset and skill.
    Manager: No formal degree required, but you need really sharp people skills to get started on this.
    Day Trader: There's no real barrier to entry other than guts, starter money, and arguably a lack of common sense.

    Rob writes:

    I take issue with the sentiment that sales is an inherently dishonest profession.

    Bob Knaus writes:

    With only a high school degree, I became a management consultant. I liked it, because I got paid to discover and tell the truth.

    Granted, my qualifications and description of the work are far removed from most people's perceptions of this career.

    All I can say is that there are honest salesmen and honest management consultants. For all I know, even honest politicians!

    Robert Speirs: I have worked as a librarian. There are a lot of weird sorts, but it's wrong to group them like that. What is often the case in my experience is that they are very unconventional, and with a strong literary interest, unsurprisingly.

    That said, I worked at a university-college library, with nursing as one of the fields. When we found out that my wife was pregnant, I looked for Lennart Jonsson's "A child is born". Jonsson is the swedish photographer who has produced most of the striking images of foetues in the womb. International bestseller, undoubtedly historically important. They didn't have it. That set me wondering a little.

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