Professions in society
A version of this article was first published: Australian Financial Review - December 1995
I fear that the professions are on the road to oblivion in Australia. Few seem to have noticed. Less seem to care. I'm not suggesting that we will suddenly cease to encounter people who call themselves and are recognised as lawyers, doctors, accountants, engineers and so on. Instead, I am afraid that each of these people will have come to see themselves as nothing more than self-interested service providers operating competitive businesses in the market.
So what? Some may see this as a desirable outcome. After all, why should any group be spared the whip when it comes to competition policy? Surely we have learned that vigorous competition benefits the community by ensuring that only the most able and efficient prosper. For example, by helping to strengthen the sinews of business, competition increases the capacity of Australian companies to succeed in international markets. To the extent that we export more goods and services than we import, so we are all better off. If it's good for business in general, why not the professions?
Let me be clear, I am not meaning to set up a straw man just for the sake of being able to knock it down with a few rhetorical swipes. There really is a case to be made for exposing the professions to greater competition. The trouble is that such an important change in the way society organises its affairs really deserves to be thoroughly debated so that we do not inadvertently throw the proverbial baby out with the bath water.
What are we to make of the fact that society has, until recently, been prepared to exempt members of the professions from the full rigour of the market? Is it the case, as some suggest, that the community has been hoodwinked? Has control of certain forms of essential knowledge allowed the professions to secure special treatment by exploiting community vulnerability? Or, is it possible that society has previously recognised a 'social compact' in which privileges are granted in return for commitments which, if honoured, impose obligations far in excess of those normally applying in the market?
If the idea of a 'social compact' with the professions seems a little fanciful, consider for a moment the situation involving shareholders in the modern corporation. The 'invention' of the joint stock company (where each investor's liability is limited to the value of the investment) is properly regarded as one of the most significant innovations of all time. By spreading risk and removing the prospect of total ruin, should a venture fail, the advent of the new corporation liberated capital to be invested in ventures that would otherwise have stalled for lack of initial funding.
Yet, it should be remembered that the joint stock company is an invention; a social artefact that confers privileges on those who choose to take advantage of its structure! The grant of public privileges to private individuals would only seem to be justified in circumstances where they contribute to an increase in the stock of common good.
The same holds good in the case of the professions. In order to see this, it is necessary to make clear just what it is that is supposed to distinguish the professions from other occupational groups. The professions have been defined in many ways. However, the most common thread is that, unlike others in the private sector, members of the professions are required always to act in a spirit of public service. That is, they are bound always to put the interests of others before their own. At least that is the theory.
The problem is that although the argument has merit, the actual practice of many professionals seems to make a lie of it. Whatever the facts of the matter, many people do not believe that the professions are motivated by a spirit of public service. Too many people see the professions as being elitist and secretive. Too many people think that the professional societies and associations put the interests of their members before all others. Too many people recall the activities of professional people who surrendered their independence and judgement to become nothing more than ‘hired guns’.
The other counter argument against the professions is along the lines that people ought to be able to choose less competent or committed advisers. Let each individual take a personal risk and pay for what they get. There is a clear response to this. The first element involves pointing out that this would relegate the poor (or more likely the middle class) to a position in which they could only afford the services of the less skilled.
The second is that society has always thought it prudent to reserve certain tasks to particular groups who have displayed special competence or who have been prepared to offer special advantages in return for their privileges. It is easy to see how a concern for the health and safety of the community might justify the introduction of a special regime for groups like engineers and health care professionals.
Similarly, the pursuit of justice on behalf of those whose interests conflict with those of the rich and powerful lends support for maintenance of a legal profession which recognises that its members should pursue a vocation and not just run a business in the law. And we can see how dependent we are on accountants and journalists to ensure that the information we rely upon is true and fair.
Increased competition may make the professions more efficient. However, as is increasingly recognised, efficiency is not the only value. A just society may also need to ensure that it keeps in place an informal set of checks and balances designed to ensure that some of the less pleasant aspects of the market economy are kept at bay.
Having said this, if the professions are to mount a convincing case in favour of exemption from the full force of competition law, then they will need to do more than talk about their ability to give primary importance to the provision of public service.
Beyond this they will have to take the initiative and put the principles into practice. But they should be warned, the community will not tolerate mere displays of window dressing. A strategy based on the manipulation of images would be the ultimate act of folly.