The Guild Problem
By Arnold Kling
Most intellectuals today still live in a guild economy. The learned professions – lawyers, doctors, university professors, the clergy of most mainline denominations, and (aspirationally anyway) school teachers and journalists – are organized in modern day versions of the medieval guilds. Membership in the guilds is restricted, and the self-regulated guilds do their best to uphold an ideal of service and fairness and also to defend the economic interests of the members. The culture and structure of the learned professions shape the world view of most American intellectuals today, but high on the list of necessary changes our society must make is the restructuring and in many cases the destruction of the guilds…
In most of our learned professions and knowledge guilds today, promotion is linked to the needs and aspirations of the guild rather than to society at large. Promotion in the academy is almost universally linked to the production of ever more specialized, theory-rich (and, outside the natural sciences, too often application-poor) texts, pulling the discourse in one discipline after another into increasingly self-referential black holes. We suffer from ‘runaway guilds’: costs skyrocket in medicine, the civil service, education and the law in part because the imperatives of the guilds and the interests of their members too often triumph over the needs and interests of the wider society.
I am not on board with the entire essay, but I certainly agree with these excerpts. I also agree that the Internet is changing the playing field in these areas. The result is that many of these professions are in a defensive posture. The teachers’ unions provide the most extreme model of fierce resistance to change, interest-group politics, and credentials that are uncorrelated with productivity. I think that part of the reason that the Great Recalculation is going so slowly is the rigidity of the credentialized sector of our society. These are the sectors where the long-term income elasticity is highest, meaning that they will grow as a share of output. But they cannot absorb an appropriate share of the work force until they become flexible and efficient.