Sycophantry Masquerading As Bargains

The Catholic Church used to sell “indulgences”; you gave them cash and they gave you the assurance that God would let you sin without punishment. If you are at all suspicious about whether this church can actually deliver on their claim, this seems a bad deal. You give them something tangible and clearly valuable, and they give you a vague promise on something you can’t see, and can’t even check if anyone has ever received.

We make similar bad “bargains” with a few kinds of workers, to whom we grant extraordinary privileges of “self-regulation.” That is, we let certain “professionals” run their own organizations which tell us how their job their job is to be done, and who can do it. In some areas, such as with doctors, these judgements are enforced by law: you can only buy medical services approved by doctors, and can only buy such services from those who the official medical organizations labels “doctors.” In other areas, such as with academics, these judgements are more enforced by our strong eagerness to associate with high prestige professionals: most everyone just accepts the word of key academic organizations on who is a good academic.

There is a literature which frames this as a “grand bargain”. The philosopher Donald Schön says:

In return for access to their extraordinary knowledge in matters of great human importance, society has granted them [professionals] a mandate for social control in their fields of specialization, a high degree of autonomy in their practice, and a license to determine who shall assume the mantle of professional authority.

In their book The Future of the Professions: How Technology Will Transform the Work of Human Experts, Richard and Daniel Susskind elaborate:

In acknowledgement of and in return for their expertise, experience, and judgement, which they are expected to apply in delivering affordable, accessible, up-to-date, reassuring, and reliable services, and on the understanding that they will curate and update their knowledge and methods, train their members, set and enforce standards for the quality of their work, and that they will only admit appropriately qualified individuals into their ranks, and that they will always act honestly, in good faith, putting the interests of clients ahead of their own, we (society) place our trust in the professions in granting them exclusivity over a wide range of socially significant services and activities, by paying them a fair wage, by conferring upon them independence, autonomy, rights of self-determination, and by according them respect and status.

Notice how in this supposed bargain, what we give the professionals is concrete and clearly valuable, while what they give us (over what we’d get without the deal) is vague and very hard for us to check. Like an indulgence. The Susskinds claim that while this bargain has been a good deal so far, we will soon cancel it:

We predict that increasingly capable machines, operating on their own or with non-specialist users, will take on many of the tasks that have been the historic preserve of the professions. We anticipate an ‘incremental transformation’ in the way that we produce and distribute expertise in society. This will lead eventually to a dismantling of the traditional professions.

This seems seriously mistaken to me. There is actually no bargain, there is just the rest of us submitting to professionals’ prestige. Cheaper yet outcome-effective substitutes to expensive professionals have long been physically available, and yet we have mostly not chosen those substitutes due to our eagerness to affiliate with prestigious professionals. We don’t choose nurses who can do primary care as well as doctors, and we don’t watch videos of the best professors from which we could learn as much as from attending typical lectures in person. And we aren’t interested in outcome track records for our lawyers. The existence of even more such future substitutes won’t change this situation much.

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    How big of a problem would a “bad bargain” really be? Academia is a small part of global GDP. Medical services form a substantial chunk of GDP but mostly consist of routine procedures, care for the elderly, etc… where we don’t need all-star teams of geniuses.

    • Tige Gibson

      There’s a not so subtle political assumption behind it. If you aren’t a genius specialist or entrepreneur, then you may as well be paid minimum wage or less. Somehow this theory would lead to the medical industry becoming much cheaper as most doctors could be reclassified as caregivers and have to compete with immigrants for those ever lower wages.

  • Lord

    It would just elevate them further as guardians of data, gathering, collecting, validating, organizing, and redistributing it, faster, more thoroughly, and more powerfully, replacing the routine with the exceptional.

    • Tige Gibson

      As much as I welcome this idea, I can’t help but see it as looking like magic to the layman.


    The problem with the article you linked to in order to demonstrate that “non-expert” nurses may perform just as well as “expert” physicians is that it does not measure how well nurses performed in likewise independent performance settings with that of physicians. Do the same outcomes persist without a physician around to guide the nurses?

    From what I gather, as someone who works in the medical field (as a non-expert), nurse practitioners are largely dependent upon the expertise of in-house physicians, governing how to proceed with a diagnosis, etc.

    Should we open the channels of gathering medical advice from people other than physicians? Yes, if we would like to see who performs the best in terms of outcomes.

    Though, one should be careful to generalize that considered non-experts perform just as well as considered experts in their respective fields.

    • RobinHanson

      I don’t see the point in evaluating nurses in anything but the most realistic scenario, and having docs available to consult is very realistic. Ordinary docs have specialists available to consult, and I don’t see why that isn’t also legitimate.

      • Tige Gibson

        Judging by the title of this blog, I would assume that you know the major disadvantage of non-experts is that they presume that they have much more knowledge than they actually do. The gap between an ordinary doctor and a specialist is fairly understood by both parties, as it is between a nurse and a doctor, but between a layman and a specialist the specialist would understand in ways the layman would only fabricate conspiracy theories about.

      • SAXB

        On the contrary I reckon it’s the ‘experts’ who often presume they have much more knowledge than they actually do. …

      • Tige Gibson

        As an actual expert whom people regularly consult, I have a very good idea what the limits of my knowledge are, and I refer to others when I am not in my depth. You are probably assuming that when anyone claims to be an expert that they actually are, but they probably aren’t. That’s dishonesty, not assumption.

        I deal with this a lot too. People often assume that they know about processes which occur either before or after their involvement because the overall process which they were only a small part of is successful, but they are discounting or even oblivious to the contributions of many others.

        They may in fact be experts, even genius, in a particular area, but not in all areas and they are in error to assert or more often allow others to assume that they have expertise which they don’t actually have. In these cases I would say they are *not* in fact experts rather than make foolish accusations about the validity of expert advise or testimony.

  • JordanViray

    “The Catholic Church used to sell ‘indulgences’; you gave them cash and they gave you the assurance that God would let you sin without punishment.”

    That’s not how it works. Someone commits a sin. Then they go to Confession where they confess the sin and promise not to sin again; someone going to Confession without the intention of avoiding sin in the future would make that confession invalid and pile on another serious sin to their misdeeds.

    But even if one’s sins had been forgiven in a proper Confession, there remained the penance, i.e., the punishment. Indulgences could reduce that punishment.

    In NO way could you buy an indulgence, and then proceed to do whatever you wanted without punishment.

    • Stephen Diamond

      someone going to Confession without the intention of avoiding sin in the future would make that confession invalid and pile on another serious sin to their misdeeds

      The religious Mafioso seem not to understand this fine point.

    • IMASBA

      Indulgences technically only worked for past sins, so in that sense Robin is wrong. But his overall point is valid: indulgences allowed the buying off of sins and of course knowing they could be bought and would reduce end-of-life “sin scores”, people must have felt less worried about future sins.

      • JordanViray

        “indulgences allowed the buying off of sins”

        No, they didn’t. You could have bought all the indulgences in the world, commit a grave sin the next day, and the punishment would still be eternal damnation unless the sinner went to Confession.

        And as I said, anyone going to Confession without a strong determination to avoid future sin is likely to not have been forgiven.

        There probably are some of the behavioral effects you mention, but the topic isn’t is one where historians haven’t quite overcome their bias.

      • IMASBA

        You could get rid of the punishment for a sin you committed the PREVIOUS day. In any case you would end up with less unsettled sins at the end of your life.

      • JordanViray

        No, not without Confession. Confession is required for indulgences to even function.

        Committing a sin, then buying an indulgence without having gone to Confession does not help them at all.

      • IMASBA

        Going to confession is no biggie and buying an indulgence sure sounds a lot more comfortable than going on a crusade, living a life of service to the poor or suffering in purgatory. Someone else could also get you an early release from purgatory by buying an indulgence for you.

        So it really was a way to buy off divine punishment or suffering, in all but name.

      • JordanViray

        Actually Confession IS a biggie because it requires a sincere disposition in order to be valid. The result of someone planning to commit a grave sin with the idea of going to Confession and buying indulgences afterwards = damnation.

        Indulgences don’t apply to souls in hell so early release from purgatory is not a factor in the sense of indulgences as “a way to buy off divine punishment”.

        Indulgences are easier to perform than the first penances that were introduced, no argument there.

  • Tige Gibson

    You have very successfully lead me to believe that you are not a professional, not a member of any professional organization, not an academic and have no academic credentials.

    As a professional, I don’t have a lot of interest in what the organizations I belong to are up to because it’s mostly political and self-serving (serving to the organization itself) which in some ways confers benefits to certain members. The development of systems to “replace” members would have strongly divisive effects on political allegiances within any professional organization. The very idea of the organization shrinking would panic almost everyone and members would expect the organization to do something about it. While some people would see it as inevitable and take comfort that they are among the top tier who aren’t threatened by these systems, they would still be threatened by the simple fact of their organization shrinking, losing influence and most importantly funding and benefits.

    Depending on what exactly you do in your profession, you may or may not work closely with other people also in your same area of expertise. Unfortunately, most of what I do is deal with the output of people who, for whatever reason, whether they have many years of experience or very few, are not really aware of what other people in their/our area of expertise expect.

    What I mean by this is that if we are going to design machines and software to take over the more menial aspects of our professional work we actually need the input of people with cross-disciplinary and cross-industry experience. This sort of people usually lack the specific technical skills that we actually need to put into our “replacements”. They’re politicians, and so the systems they produce will be politicians. Imagine virtual doctors who can’t help you well if at all, but are very good at making you feel comfortable with the care you’re not getting, so that you give them good reviews online.

    • sleepmon

      Good lord. Go back to church.

    • Jim Balter


  • Eidolon Blue

    Honestly I didn’t expect such a horrible representation of what is an indulgence being posted here. You can do better! Don’t get the easy facts wrong.

  • Stephen Diamond

    You give them something tangible and clearly valuable, and they give you a vague promise on something you can’t see, and can’t even check if anyone has ever received.

    That’s not necessarily a bad bargain. Many exchanges are asymmetric with respect to clarity. If someone buys your em book, they are parting with something of definite value for a rather vague hope of enlightenment. The individuals dealing factors in the vagueness (uncertainty) when they make the deal.

    [For a sketch of a more subtle take on the deal made – and how it’s a bad bargain (but a bargain nonetheless) in law, see “What happened to lawyers’ amoral ethical role?” – . For something on the state of self-regulation in law, see “Should the law profession be self-regulating” – ]

  • dat_bro06

    Robin there are signs of incremental weakness if you’d inspect a bit closer. An MBA is a sure fire way to get yourself laughed out of an interview in Silicon Valley. The romantic ideal of the college drop-out entrepreneur (of which there are several high profile examples) is, for better or for worse, strong. And there is such an oversupply of lawyers these days one is lucky to make into the six figures upon graduation.

    The medical professions are quite better insulated but as you say this is structurally reinforced as opposed to sociologically so.

    To the extent in either liberal art/ technical fields there is an over reliance on the professions, I ‘submit’ to you this is a function of risk risk aversion, ignorance, and/or laziness, as opposed to psychological deference.

    • RobinHanson

      The attraction to college degrees, and MBAs, is if anything stronger than it used to be. There has always been some skepticism, but that doesn’t make a trend.

      • Stephen Diamond

        The attraction to college degrees, and MBAs, is if anything stronger than it used to be.

        Going to school is higher status than simply being unemployed. (Witness Pell grants.) But degrees seem to be declining in the status they’re actually accorded.

      • IMASBA

        Getting “any” degree is losing its status. But at least part of this must be attributed to a larger portion of the population getting a degree and there being more specialized degrees, making generic degrees less valuable.

      • Stephen Diamond

        Are generic degrees really less valuable these days? I think the opposite: at the margin, a high-school degree is worth more today. It marks the difference between having the chance to get a crappy job and having no prospects at all. It’s a big divide, the high school diploma.

        On the other hand, the degree associated with the highest prestige and income – the M.D. – has, in recent years, rapidly lost status. (As have the medical specialties.) Patients these days can dictate to their physicians what medications they should prescribe – thus the advertising of prescription meds to the general public.

        I don’t think this is completely benign. For instance, the fall in the prestige of the medical profession now means that millions of auto accident victims get “treatment” from chiropractic quacks.

  • glenstein

    I thought the grand bargain struck between Finland and it’s teachers was of exactly this nature: higher pay, higher prestige, more autonomy, but an expectation of higher results. And it seems to have worked fabulously. What’s wrong with Finland?

    • RobinHanson

      Can you cite a source showing a change in results after vs before this bargain?

  • Jon Frisby

    And how does one prevent a market for lemons if one does not involve domain experts in the regulation of a highly complex domain?

    • RobinHanson

      There are more options than to either not involve experts at all or to give some of them complete power over their area.

      • Jon Frisby

        What options exist to involve non-experts without turning things into a market for lemons?

      • Jon Frisby

        And you don’t think bringing wholly uninformed parties into the mix will lead to the same race-to-the-bottom wrt substance that happens everywhere else? What would these options be, exactly?

        Asserting options exist without specificity is not constructive or useful.

        Asserting a problem without evidence is worse than that: It’s counterproductive at best, and potentially destructive at worst.

      • Jon Frisby

        That does not answer my question. You’ve asserted that “X is a problem” and suggested it should be done away with, but without addressing the concerns X is intended to address. When pressed for alternative solutions you offer none. That’s just intellectually dishonest.

  • urstoff

    Minor nitpick: nurse practitioners are not normal nurses. They are nurses who have also gone through additional years of medical school to become licensed as nurse practitioners (they can legally prescribe medications; normal RNs can’t). They’re much more like a physician assistant than a nurse.

    Your main point still holds, though. Most people would rather see an MD than a PA or NP.

  • Stefan Schubert

    Good article. People are over-optimistic on this. Tech won’t do as much to solve this issue as lots of people hope. We should work harder on regulatory reform, but that route is very hard too, considering how powerful these vested interests are.

  • entirelyuseless

    As a few other people have pointed out in the comments, your description of indulgences in the Catholic Church is quite wrong. Your basic point is reasonable enough regardless of this, and I realize there is no reason why you would be closely acquainted with Catholic practices, but the statement as it stands is very misleading.

  • Riothamus

    Of the three examples of eagerness to associate with prestigious professionals cited, two of them are dominated by institutional mandates.

    Most of us do not have the freedom to select our medical professionals. Unless a person is in the tiny population who can afford to pay cash for medical treatment, that determination is mostly made by our insurance carrier. For everyone else it is mostly made by the government. The government and insurance must both make a choice before it becomes available to a meaningful segment of the population.

    Students do not choose how college courses are conducted. This determination is made primarily by universities and departments, and finally by the professor. Even so, in my experience it is not the case that the same course can be taken with in person lectures or video lectures – it is one or the other, so the student has no choice either way. While it is certainly true I could watch available lectures from top professors without going to a university, this puts everyone with whom I might want to work in the bad bargain position: they have my vague and untested assurances that I totally learned what I claim, without the evidence of evaluation and certification of minimum performance.

    In the cases of both medicine and law, the track record is not determined solely by the professional. I would argue that the merits of the case set the bounds on success, and the professional is only the variance. This leaves aside the large segment of the legal work that is handled by public defenders in the United States, who are appointed in any case.

    If we had an organized system of tracking outcomes for doctors and lawyers, I expect the dominant outcome would be neglect of difficult cases.

  • Matt Obenhaus

    As you indicate, I believe the advent of Massive Online Open Courses are going to be less disruptive to our institutional secondary education market than many sages predict. Secondary education seems to be as much about signaling to the world what sort of prestige you are capable of rising to and what you are willing to pay for as much as it is an honest quest for knowledge, which is diffuse and harder to value.

  • dzhaughn .

    Buying a Papal Indulgence in the middle ages bought something plenty concrete: Better relations with the Church as a political institution. It would have been easy enough to tell if you got what you paid for.

  • Lawrence Fitzpatrick

    Interesting. Seems like there are a lot of bargains going on:

    1. We believe in our own expertise at something and expect respect for that, so we reciprocate to others who claim to have different expertise and allow that this may be true in exchange for the hope that we will be respected, too.

    2. Some groups of like-minded, self-proclaimed experts, bargain with politicians for special protection in exchange for financial support. This form of bargain seems to dominate every major industry.

    There are a lot more bargains packed into the mix, making it difficult to forecast. But, it seems the bargains are less about measurable performance and more about power, so it’s almost certain that specialized experts won’t be dis-intermediated soon.

    On the other hand, technological advances broke the medieval guild structure, so….