The Economics of Respect
By David Henderson
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.