Bryan Caplan  

The Mystery of Classism

Caplan, Bryan. 2007. The ... Scam...

My colleague Don Boudreaux stands accused of being a snob. He said:

Service-sector jobs are the most desirable. Until his retirement, my dad had a manufacturing job: he worked as a welder in a shipyard. Like most parents, his dream was for his children to become doctors or lawyers and the like -- that is, he longed for his children to work in the service sector. Ever hear a parent say “I want my boy to grow up to be a pipe-fitter!” or “My dream is for little Suzy one day to operate her very own sewing machine in a clothing factory!”?

This in turn peeved a reader:

As a matter of fact, there are quite a few people who would be proud to see their sons grow up to be pipefitters. Machinists, welders and electricians too. They would be proud to see their son not only become a pipefitter, but to own his own truck and be an independent pipefitting contractor... It is decent, honorable work, despite your pompous drivel.

Don makes the obvious replies. But I still don't get the complaint.

Admittedly, this isn't the first time. The unintentionally hilarious Class Matters has a whole inventory of "Classist Comments", such as:

I ate out with a friend — someone proud to call herself a Massachusetts liberal — and the waitress got her order wrong. My friend said, "Well, if she was smart, she wouldn't be a waitress."

Why are we supposed to be appalled? I've got four hypotheses.

Hypothesis #1: The statement is intended as an exceptionless claim - i.e., "No waitress is smart."

Problem: Ordinary English doesn't work that way. Almost all statements of this sort are intended as statistical generalizations, not universals.

Hypothesis #2: The implied statistical generalization is false.

Problem: When you check stereotypes against objective statistics, they're usually true. In fact, people often seem to be touchy precisely because they're true. If you mocked the intelligence of mathematicians, we'd be puzzled, not offended.

Hypothesis #3: It's about manners, not truth. Sure, we all know that these statements are true statistical generalizations, but they're still rude to say.

Problem: We can avoid saying specific hurtful things to specific people, but even that's not easy. To avoid hurting the feelings of people who are eager to read insults into any generalization is virtually impossible. And even if it weren't, what's wrong with a person who searches for personal affronts where none were intended?

Hypothesis #4: There is no reason to be appalled.

Problem: ???

P.S. On Class Matters' main page, they summarize a couple of papers on the differences between the Professional Middle Class and the Working Class. The showcased research and the maligned "Classist Comments" are amazingly consistent. The main difference: The former are deferential, the latter are blunt.

Comments and Sharing

COMMENTS (10 to date)
Collin writes:


When you check stereotypes against objective statistics, they're usually true.

Not according to this study:

ben writes:

Hypothesis #5
People don’t use the same definition of service sector, and only think of service sector jobs as the inferior ones. Of course, parents want their children to be drs, lawyers, and architects, but people don’t think of these high prestige jobs as service sector. They think of service sector instead as the low skill entry level jobs, or maybe for a career they would think of a mid level manager or a government or corporate bureaucrat. Some of these jobs, especially cushy government jobs, may pay very well and may be great from the individual perspective, but they also have a stigma with some segments of society. After all, we can’t all work service jobs, someone actually has to create something.

Matt writes:

Hypothesis #6: The statement was intended to imply that her parents are not at all intelligent and were wrong to copulate.

Bob Knaus writes:

Ben's Hypothesis #5 is definitely valid in the Bahamas. If you say you are in favor of more service sector jobs, you may get a stream of invective from otherwise pleasant and intelligent Bahamians. Suffice it to say that the description will involve wiping the pallid posteriors of tourists.

To avoid such rants, I've found it best to say "service sector, not servant sector." Or better yet, "professional service jobs." Everybody is in favor of these!

liberty writes:

I understand the point, and think the overall point is valid, but I disagree on this example.

I do not think that most waitresses are stupid.

1. Many are only waiting tables for a short time as they prepare for another career (in the case of an acting career, that may not mean anything).

2. Some are mothers, waiting tables to bing in a little extra cash; they have no time for a proper career and mostly want to raise their children. Mothers are not dumb by definition unless you think women are dumb by definition, in which case I think you are not only wrong, but stupid for thinking so.

3. In some areas waiting tables brings in decent money, is hard work requiring quite a bit of multi-tasking ability and/or is a fun, sociable job. These things do not attract stupid people.

I have met many intelligent waitresses and fully disagree with this stereotype.

alcbiades writes:

Great post.

Zac writes:


Having worked in the food service sector I can say, anecdotally, that there are two types of waitresses: part-timers and careerists. The part-timers are usually students and are of above-average intelligence, while the careerists are usually not too bright.

Those part-timers make up the majority of people working as servers in food service.

So why I wouldn't call the statement you wrote "appalling," its definitely a bit off the mark. It is however a bit "classist," because one thing is true of nearly all waitresses: they don't have very much money. Because people know the generalization that "waitresses are, in general, of below average intelligence" is untrue, they will interpret the statement in question asz;

"If she weren't poor, she wouldn't be working as a waitress. And we know that poor people can't do anything right, not even their own jobs."

Giedrius writes:

I think ability of a waitress to get an order right is more related to "people" skills, rather than to intelligence. I bet most of the programmers in our company would be terrible waiters.

Giovanni writes:

"Well, if she was smart, she wouldn't be a waitress."
"Why are we supposed to be appalled?"

Sure, it may be an accurate generalization that waitresses are dumb, but that doesn't make it a fair and neutral remark as you imply, it makes it a more vicious and clever attack. That remark was clearly made with a cruel and demeaning intent.

Similarly, I could make many mean spirited yet valid, intelligent, and factually accurate comments about someone who is dying of cancer. The accuracy and intelligence would make the remarks more cruel not less.

Honestly Bryan, it's disappointing to read this on this blog. It shows a vicious mean streak in an otherwise fascinating blog.

JKB writes:

It's appalling because it was said to be judgmental and superior. That it came from someone whose politics professes to care for the less fortunate makes it more appalling. What most people forget is what you say and how you say it says more about you than the person you are commenting on.

What about this scenario: The waitress is working on her degree in mathematics and was distracted by a homework problem. That rather than being less intelligent, she simply isn't being mindful of something unimportant as this woman's food order.

BTW, most pipefitters don't want their kids to become pipefitters, not because they consider it unworthy work, but rather because it is hard, dangerous, dirty work. What parent doesn't want their child to have an easier and safer life than they did. If you ever see a guy upside down in the bilge of ship welding a pipe wedged beneath a generator, surrounded by poisonous fumes and flooding the bilge with his sweat, you'll understand. First that the man is an artist and extremely skilled. Second, that you don't want your child to have to do this for a living.

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