David R. Henderson  

The Economics of Respect

Immigrants and Their Motivatio... Grow the Respect Pie...

In "Redistribute wealth? No, redistribute respect," Noah Smith argues that we should pay more respect to people who work in currently less-respected jobs. To that, I say a hearty "hear, hear." I also like the title, although I'm not sure he means it completely. He says "no" to redistributing wealth, but in the second paragraph of his piece, he seems to imply that he wants to redistribute wealth.

But let me not get sidetracked. I agree with him about the desirability of showing respect to people who work at what they themselves, and others, see as low-end jobs. I've practiced that for some time. I show respect to anyone who does his/her job well as long as I think the job should be done. (I would try hard, for example, not to show respect to a very competent DEA agent.) And, even aside from jobs, it's important to show respect to people. One of the things I learned from my students, almost all of whom are military officers, is how the word "sir," said respectfully, opens doors. So I started using that word, even when talking to teenage boys. Try it when you want directions from, say, a black 15-year old and you will typically see his face light up. So I did the "sir" out of narrow self-interest, but now that I've been doing it for some time, I just enjoy doing it, partly to make the person feel good and partly to make myself feel good.

What Noah advocates, though, has interesting implications for wages and income, which is why I titled this post "The Economics of Respect." Adam Smith pointed out long ago what economists now call the concept of "compensating wage differentials." In The Wealth of Nations, Smith wrote:

First, The wages of labour vary with the ease or hardship, the cleanliness or dirtiness, the honourableness or dishonourableness of the employment. Thus in most places, take the year round, a journeyman taylor earns less than a journeyman weaver. His work is much easier. A journeyman weaver earns less than a journeyman smith. His work is not always easier, but it is much cleanlier. A journeyman blacksmith, though an artificer, seldom earns so much in twelve hours as a collier, who is only a labourer, does in eight. His work is not quite so dirty, is less dangerous, and is carried on in day-light, and above ground. Honour makes a great part of the reward of all honourable professions. In point of pecuniary gain, all things considered, they are generally under-recompensed, as I shall endeavour to show by and by. Disgrace has the contrary effect. The trade of a butcher is a brutal and an odious business; but it is in most places more profitable than the greater part of common trades. The most detestable of all employments, that of public executioner, is, in proportion to the quantity of work done, better paid than any common trade whatever.

So what would happen if there were a noticeable increase in the respect accorded low-wage workers? Their wages would fall and most of them would be happier. I hope Noah means what he says in his title. Otherwise, when he looks simply at income, he will advocate even more redistribution.

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CATEGORIES: Labor Market

COMMENTS (18 to date)
Andy writes:

Agreed -- as a taxpayer, I always like to applaud and demonstrate respect for military members in order to keep their status high and their pay low. But given that I disagree with almost all the work they do, I think they should really be held on par with your putative DEA agent.

Eric Falkenstein writes:

While I agree with the sentiment that people who are doing their best at whatever they are doing should be appreciated by others, I think a policy to distributed respect is futile. Respect is earned, not given. If it's forced, it's obvious and resented; no one appreciate insincere praise. Thus, this more gets into trying to define values, why it's good to obey the Serenity Prayer, to be polite, grateful, etc. All good stuff, but hardly a macro policy. It's no coincidence that the Romans elevated Cincinnatus as an aspiration during its golden age.

Interestingly, in olden times, people venerated duty (Kant's deontology), which was very much based on class, basically doing your part as defined by your class. To break from that, like a Beethoven, was impertinent in a sense. This ideology was necessary in a society where the hierarchy's legitimacy is both needed and somewhat arbitrary.

Ideally, society should ennoble excellence at every level (intellectual, labor), while also giving individuals the ability to choose what they want to do regardless of their history. The obvious monetary and status differentials between occupations make this tricky, because one can see this as patronizing or self-serving (eg, easy for Donald Trump to be nice to his shoe-shine guy, but is it just a subtle barrier to entry?).

Norman writes:

"Respect is earned, not given."

Rarely has a statement been so overwhelmingly false. For details see Robin Hanson's entire blog, particularly posts explicitly discussing relative status.

John Smith writes:

I disagree strongly with this post. To me, the central ideology behind this entire post is wrong and stinks of excessively progressive ideas.

It is true that not all jobs can be easily placed within a strict ranking. Being a musician may be very lowly paid compared to being a banker, but the musician may well be contented as it is his dreams. But by and large, most jobs can be easily ranked, by its income if by nothing else.

Those people who have failed in life, who have not worked hard enough to earn their place in a higher position, these people should be condemned and not praised. To purposely show them more respect would be to falsely imply that they are just as worthy beings as us. I do not go out of my way to insult and hurt them, but I certainly do not think they deserve much respect either.

A common say in my country is to study hard, otherwise you may end up sweeping the floor (as a occupation in the future). To actually show excessive respect to a floor sweeper is against the beliefs of a righteous people.

John Soriano writes:

This reminds me of a point I came across while reading Alison Wolf of Oxford's "The XX factor". The reason prostitutes' wages are so high (extrapolating their hourly wage to a yearly salary would put them in the top 0.5% of earners) is because of the lack of respect the profession garners, even where it is legal. Part of this is sacrificing marriage because men don't respect prostitutes enough to marry them. Eliminate this lack of respect and you eliminate the high wages.

Mass writes:

Bryan Caplan doesn't respect wait staff:


Some people deserve a lack of respect: people who purposefully mooch off of others, irresponsible parents, criminals, etc.

People who do honest serious work are quite admirable in comparison. Large volumes of people in the US feel this way and are very respectful to menial laborers. My mother in law cleans bathrooms at a major airport and says people are generally extremely respectful towards her.

andy writes:

Unemployed people on benefits face a very high marginal tax rate. Showing them disrespect (and showing respect if they take any job so they wouldn't be on benefits) actually lowers the marginal tax rate.

Tom West writes:

I expect the idea that higher respect means lower wages (and vice-versa) is a lot more true in eco-topia than in reality.

My observation is that in many cases there's an "anchor price" based on the respect we give a position, and if the wage is too low to attract a qualified candidate, then we either do without, or more commonly, fill it with someone manifestly incompetent.

I see complaints and inefficiencies, but the concept of paying that low-status position better in order to attract more or better workers is simply off the table because you don't pay low-status positions that much.

Likewise, if you pay someone more, our respect for them usually grows, simply because if we're paying them more (for good or bad reason), it must be because we respect them. Sort of like if we smile for artificial reasons, it still ends up making us happier.

Culture doesn't always triumph economics, but it's often not a bad way to bet.

Concerning respect, I have noticed the closely related adjective "respectable". This adjective calls attention to an idea: An object may have some quality which attracts respect. Further, I suggest a person may be respectable or not, based upon how the person behaves. This suggests that at least some of the power to receive respect resides in the person who may need or want respect.

I would not say that all respect derives from the quality of the object. Usually I suppose some respect can be generated in the observer of the object, by reminding the observer of some facts. I can remind myself that I am facing another human whose life-circumstances I can not fully comprehend.

But still I doubt that respect can be redistributed any more than beauty can be redistributed. Both respect and beauty are psychological interpretations, an interaction between an observing mind an an observed object (or person).

nl7 writes:

This sort of argument will generally divide conservatives and Objectivists from libertarians and anarchists.

Some people see the free market as the natural moral extension of personal ambition, excellence, and talent. Devaluing respect's worth by giving it away freely hither and yon is asking them to negate the core of their ideological worldview. This includes many Objectivists, as well as a large number of conservatives.

Meanwhile, those free market advocates who rely more on more syllogistic applications of non-initiation of force or personal autonomy will see the lack of any coercion and the surfeit of personal happiness. Many of these people will be more general libertarians and some anarchists, though not all of them will be very motivated to care about an issue of personal manners that seems relatively trivial.

I'm entirely opposed to limiting commercial freedom, but I don't think that the market is a moral compass either. Possessing wealth doesn't necessarily have a strong correlation to personal moral worth, in my opinion. So paying a little extra respect to everyone you meet, including people who are young or working low-wage jobs, strikes me as a good way to live.

jred writes:

I agree that giving respect to those around you is a good way to live.

I do, however, have trouble seeing the inverse relationship between respect and income in our modern society. If anything, it seems that opposite is true.

Those professions that garner immense respect (physicians, successful businessmen, successful investors, celebrities, athletes) also have the highest incomes. While those with the lowest incomes (janitors, fast food workers, lawn mowers) seem to have the lowest respect.

In that light, it seems unlikely that paying more respect to low status workers would result in less pay. Perhaps, we are confusing cause and effect. Could it be that higher pay - in and of itself - would result in greater respect for the currently low status worker?

John Soriano writes:


When we say that a lower level of respect means a higher wage, we mean ceteris paribus. The jobs you listed as high-respect jobs also happen to be high-skill jobs. If two jobs are otherwise the same, the one that garners less respect should have a higher wage to compensate for that lower level of respect.

jred writes:

Thanks for taking the time to clarify, John. That makes more sense to me now.

Michael Byrnes writes:

John Smith wrote:

"Those people who have failed in life, who have not worked hard enough to earn their place in a higher position, these people should be condemned and not praised. To purposely show them more respect would be to falsely imply that they are just as worthy beings as us. I do not go out of my way to insult and hurt them, but I certainly do not think they deserve much respect either."

Ah, but here's the rub...

How much effort do you need to make to understand a person's life circumstances before you think it is OK to condemn that person?

Would you feel comfortable comdemning someose who, at a cursory glance, APPEARS to have failed in life, who APPEARS to have not worked hard enough to earn their place in a higher position? I suspect that all too many would, and do.

I think there's a strong tendency to make snap judgments about whether a person is worthy of respect, using a circular kind of logic. Joe Shmoe is a highly successful finance professional, manages billions in assets, therefore we know he has worked hard enough to be worthy of respect. Of course when we are told that Joe Shmoe is Bernie Madoff, we will withdraw our respect and switch to condemnation, but we will continue to respect other Bernie Madoffs until their fraud is revealed, while we condemn people whose circumstances we may not understand.

John Smith writes:

To Michael Byrnes:

No effort / minimal effort. We are all personally responsible for our own actions. If there are special factors at play (highly unlikely), it is up to him to convince me he is innocent. Not for me to work at it.

Snap judgements are often good (enough) judgments. There isn’t infinite time in the world. Bear that in mind.

Jeff writes:
Those people who have failed in life, who have not worked hard enough to earn their place in a higher position, these people should be condemned and not praised. To purposely show them more respect would be to falsely imply that they are just as worthy beings as us. I do not go out of my way to insult and hurt them, but I certainly do not think they deserve much respect either.

I think Smith's comment here smacks of asshattery. Democracy and Utilitarian, Deontic, and Virtue Ethics are all premised on the inherent dignity and morally equal worth of all human beings.

This is where a distinction ought to be drawn: *moral worth* and *economic value* are separate, and the former matters much more than the latter. Especially given the inherent epistemological uncertainty regarding a given person's discounted economic value. Current wealth should never "buy" respect. I'm offended by the very idea.

Daublin writes:

I believe David and Noah are talking more about looking for reasons to honestly respect people, not to give out equal high praise to everyone. As some commenters have pointed out, finding and maintaining a job is a lot more than many people do. It's sufficient grounds for a "sir" or "miss" or "ma'am", and certainly for a lack of name-calling.

I'd except the DEA, too. For that matter, I'd except the TSA. It is such a downer whenever I go through an American airport and see people being sorted through bins, partially disrobed, scanned with advanced machinery, and physically patted down. It looks like the procedures for a prison.

John Smith writes:

To Jeff:

I think Jeff's comment here smacks of stupidity. Democracy and Utilitarian, Deontic, and Virtue Ethics are not values that everyone agrees with.

Those who do not strive, those who are lazy are to be condemned. I am not speaking of wealth that is inherited, but that which is earned, as being praise worthy. Conversely, poverty is to be condemned.

Unless the individual is actually contented with and wants poverty due to special reasons such as being a Buddhist monk.

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