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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