Our Medieval Economy

This is a pretty interesting observation, from Walter Russell Mead via 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.


  1. rxc:

    Certainly true in journalism, where they talk all the time about whether bloggers and people like Wikileaks are "journalists". And, of course, their arguments about how corporations like the New York TImes and the Washington Post are somehow different from other corporations, with regard to limits placed on campaign spending, are based on the fact that "journalists" are protected by the first amendment - but only when the printing presses have been "inherited", not for some nouveau riche corporation that buys one, or invents a new way to disseminate the news.

    Engineers even have some of these characteristics, with professional organizations and actual licensing laws, where you have to take a test to be able to design a building.

  2. greg:

    RXC, I'm glad to see you mention engineering.

    arguing about this has become a yearly tradition at my parent's place at christmas. My sister (and another family member) both went through the EIT (engineer in training) phase, and are now PE (professional engineer). They argue that I'm limiting my options by not having my PE.

    I on the other hand, see the whole PE scheme just as I do the "journalists". it's a way of limiting who may practice "OUR" profession. The courses you take to get a PE often have nothing to do with the specific functions I perform everyday.....it's just a piece of paper that I can hang on my wall to prove that I'm a REAL engineer.

  3. DrTorch:

    I'm not ready to give up licensing and certification of MDs. And I think there is something to be said for the PEs who design buildings.

    The market based approach is great in many instances, but if consumers have to endure falling buildings before the market forces weed out the failures, then I'll sign up for a few "inefficencies" if it reduces those sorts of consequences.

    But fields like education, journalism, clergy...yeah big problems w/ their guilds. Fortunately, even those can't resist the forces imposed by the free market.

  4. Duane:

    The problem is that education and licensing/certification become intermingled. I would advocate for sensible use of guilds, such as DrTorch suggests, while endorsing more of the apprentice model for learning trades and crafts. This could be a more effective than traditional higher education for many.

  5. rxc:

    I am/was an engineer, now retired. I graduated with a degree in engineering, but then spent 6 years in the Navy, building and operating nuclear power plants, so that when I was ready to take the EIT, I had forgotten a lot of the material. I should have taken it just after I graduated. It was really too late to get back to thebooks, so I just went into a position where I did not need the PE credential - i.e., working for the govt. I eventually ended up supervising a few PEs, and I respect the need for some sort of test for people like structural engineers and piping engineers and some EEs where it is easy to make mistakes that cause things to fall down. However, there are a lot of things engineers do that does not require a PE, and since most engineers do not have one, it is not so much a guild as in some of the other professions.

    Some blog, maybe this one, mentioned a state requirement for interior decorators, once - this is hilarious. But then academia has a lot of the same issues...

  6. nailheadtom:

    Don't forget pharmacists and the grand champions, librarians.

  7. Bob Smith:

    if consumers have to endure falling buildings before the market forces weed out the failures, then I’ll sign up for a few “inefficencies” if it reduces those sorts of consequences

    Do you have evidence that falling buildings were a problem that was corrected by licensing? I don't recall all the 19th century building collapse disasters that surely must have been occurring because their designers weren't licensed.

  8. rxc:

    I don't have any experience that buildings fell down and then they didn't because of licensing - in fact, I can think of one case where a licensed architect designed a perfectly good walkway that the construction people installed incorrectly, causing it to fall and kill a bunch of people. The architect lost his license and livelihood, but I think the construction people just had their insurance rates raised.

    I think that some types of licensing do weed out the more blatant charlatans, and focus the minds of those who pass, so that when they design potentially dangerous structures/objects, they have more to lose if they screw up. The problem, as usual is the politicians who don't understand what they are talking about when they make new laws - they get captured by slick-talking "activists" with an agenda.

  9. Dr. T:

    "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."

    I belonged to two of the guilds: medicine and education. The first and last clauses of the sentence above are true: membership is restricted and economic interests are strongly defended (hence, the rises in costs above inflation rates for both education and medicine). However, the middle clause is bullshit. State medical boards, teacher's unions, and professional medical societies do not uphold ideals of service (though they hypocritically tout them). Instead, they work hard to ensure that incompetent or mediocre professionals retain their privileges and their positions. It is nearly impossible to fire a tenured teacher for anything short of murdering a school administrator in front of dozens of witnesses and a TV news camera crew. It is nearly impossible to get a state medical board to suspend or restrict the license of grossly incompetent physicians even when evidence of incompetence is overwhelming.

    If it were properly implemented, a guild system would be sensible for many professions. Unfortunately, for reasons that defy logic and self-interest, our modern-day guilds seem unable to require that their members meet high standards of quality.