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‘Hello, Mr. Register, Sir . . .’

From left: Then-president Barack Obama and former presidents George W. Bush, Bill Clinton, George H.W. Bush, and Jimmy Carter attend the dedication ceremony for the George W. Bush Presidential Center in Dallas, April 25, 2013. (Jason Reed/Reuters)

Tyler Cowen, a professor of economics, writes today for Bloomberg that professors should stop being called “professor.” He argues that professor is a profession just like any other profession, and we don’t refer to people who fix toilets as “Plumber Jones.”

While we’re talking about titles, it’s worth talking about one of the most grotesque, quasi-aristocratic traditions in our republic: politicians retaining their titles after they leave office.

You may recall back in 2012 when Mitt Romney was running for president, he was regularly referred to as “Governor Romney” even though he had not been governor of anything but his own household since 2007 (a duty he presumably shares with Ann). Serving as governor of Massachusetts as a Republican is deserving of hearty praise, but not a lifelong title.

The persistence of Romney’s title was not his fault, of course. It’s how we do things in the United States. We should stop.

The people elect officials who serve fixed terms in office. Those officials are bound by the Constitution or a state constitution to perform certain duties. When their terms are up, those officials no longer have any of the constitutional duties they had before. They return to being ordinary citizens like anyone else. That’s true for the president, and it’s true for the county register of deeds.

(Try that one on for size: “Hello, Mr. Register, sir . . .”)

There’s always been a lingering sense that America’s lack of aristocracy is a weakness. Surely, there are some negative consequences to a formally structureless social order. Historically, parts of the country invented their own social orders based on skin color and goofy “racial science” instead, which was not an improvement. The going social order today is little more than a materialistic, credential-obsessed pissing contest, which isn’t great, either.

But on the whole, Americans’ rejection of aristocracy is one of our best qualities. Our presumption has usually been that politicians are lying scoundrels undeserving of our close attention. That view has some downsides, too, but it’s a good starting point for a free people.

Winning more votes than some other person one time in an election is not an accomplishment deserving of a lifelong name change. Other people do things involving more skill all the time, such as folding a fitted sheet. Even retired members of the military have the decency to put “(retired)” after their titles, and there are very strict rules about how titles may be used. Becoming a general is much harder than being elected to the Delaware General Assembly.

The question of titles is particularly important right now since a certain former president seems to believe, at least to some degree, that he still is the president. It apparently bears repeating that winning an elected office once does not qualify one to the privileges of that office any longer than the Constitution says it does, and official titles should be included in that.

When people assume elected offices, they are not being created or beatified or knighted or ordained — or even hired. They are being elected, which means that more random people (casting their ballots based on who looks better on TV or has cuter kids or just whose name they recognize) picked them over someone else to wield political power over the citizenry for a few years. There’s nothing particularly honorable about that.

We are obligated to treat politicians with respect in accordance with the authority they hold while they are serving in their particular offices. We should address them by their titles while they hold that authority. We should stop addressing them that way when they no longer do.

This basic argument for republican principles will become more important as Americans increasingly see politicians as avatars of their side in an ongoing “war” for the future of the country. Focusing on power inevitably means obsessing over titles and the fine gradations between them and their proper uses. Look at any politburo in any communist regime as an example.

The rule for title usage in the American republic should be simple. In office, yes. Not in office, no.

And when the voters say your time is up, kindly go away. You’re not special.

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