Next time talk is about “pride” and “professionalism”, think…

“Amateurish” has become a byword for low quality and professionalism has all-positive connotations but that perception is far removed from reality. According to a study in American Journal of Sociology “professionalism is a sort of introspective egoism. Professionalism results in the production of certain definite and illogical idiosyncrasies. The professional is not conscious of the outcome of this slow process, but to the outside observer the deformation is painfully obvious. More professional deformation will produce less productive labour” (Langerock, 1915). (love reading old, sober research for some perspective). Even jobs producing nothing but economic waste (ranging from professional soldiers to advertising exec, redundant middlemen to spin-doctors, paper-shuffling bureaucrats to speculative dealers of derivatives and technical analysts in finance) will find solace in their “professionalism” (and as Tolstoy said, every man can find good reasons to justify the way in which he made his living).

So, why the drive to professional classes?

Your calling awaits – an example of the effort to recruit to one of the learned professions.

There is incredible power in unity and having the ability to frame the discussion. Medicine gives us a good example. Even the revered Hippocratic Oath, one of the oldest ‘binding’  documents from antiquity prescribes first and foremost loyalty to the profession (sharing everything with “those that taught us”), and aims to ensure the continuity of privileged class (“teach the sons of those that taught us and our sons”). Based on this cult-ish foundation of exclusivity and group-solidarity, it frames the responsibilities by mainly omitting things, by being silent on unprofitable activity of disease prevention and legal responsibilities. The lack of those responsibilities is covered up by listing onerous-sounding, but really just self-righteous and meaningless ones (“will not seduce females or males, freemen or slaves”). Modern versions progress by watering down requirements even further, and having bland air of  ’best wishes’  and absolutely no penalties.

Today the picture is more murky as the number of professions have exploded from the big three (priests, doctors, lawyers), but the principles are still clearly discernible.  We rely on the professionals, but they are their own masters: doctors register doctors, teachers register teachers, plumbers register plumbers, and only the professionals determine how the job can be done. More traditional trades use time-tested tools that surprisingly, still work: appearing and acting in highly stylised form (like using a dead language for a code others can’t understand) they differentiate their trade and through the mystery thus generated, command higher status, prestige and value. That image and unity of their method is jealously guarded, like the 19th century US brewers holding her association meetings in German (a language most of them could also speak, but very few others understood).  Someone competing in true meritocracy (say, a network administrator) will lower his/her personal chances of getting another job if the job was done badly, but a lawyer or doctor is debarred mainly if acting in the way that brings disrepute to the profession (and the outcome for their client is often secondary). Modern life adds some professions that are quite loose and informal, arising out of specialisation: only counter-terrorist experts can weigh up terrorism risks and only finance experts can evaluate the value of financial engineering or if regulation is desirable or not. Time will tell if they will “harden” into traditional associations, or actually by staying less defined, prove more effective and are thus the new frontier of professionalism.

Publicly, the associations are non-profit organisations dedicated to safeguarding public interest through quality control and claim that they are necessarily because of increasing specialisation, but in my cynical opinion the real reasons are largely elsewhere. Those conscious strategies include:

  • serving as an early form of branding, allowing an efficient method of promotion
  • in an unchecked power grab, professions became law unto themselves
  • unite for more influence and power
  • frame discussions (for example, neglect of less profitable activities) and swing public opinion to suitable directions
  • hide behind their codes to shield from accusations of malpractice
  • the best organised ones gain an ability to limit their numbers and thus extract monopolistic profits

Examples of obvious/easily quantifiable, cynical projections of professional power:

  • The US National Association of Realtors is shutting out others (private persons or even cut-price realtors) from listing properties on the central site. USNAR is going to court against the US Justice Department to protect the fat commission professional realtors get (tens of thousands of dollars) for performing a service (connecting buyers and sellers) that can be done for $150 (as done successfully by some competitors). If this is not price-fixing and abusing market position then I don’t what is, but inter-mediators don’t like to be made redundant (disintermediated) by technology and fight hard to continue to do what is useless now, instead of helping the society.
  • Another redundant inter-mediators are the record labels. These professional publishers of music take between 75%-95% cut from sales of the artists. Musicians can now publish for free on their websites (Radiohead got more in donations for their directly downloadable “In Rainbows” album than from their publisher for the previous studio album)…but small bands find it hard to compete with the marketing power of the major labels .
  • Dentists in Australia charge $1600 AU for root canal performed in central European countries for $150 AU (same equipment, same materials, same dentist qualifications). Cataract surgery (a 15 minute procedure) can cost you $3000 per eye or more in US - ophthalmologists must get a pretty good hourly rate that (within the country’s borders that their association controls) can’t be competed away.

Coupled with that, academics like Langerock point out the more insidious are the unconscious effects that arise when professions distort their own trade until it is of barely any use, without realising it, but causing untold damages. Examples of this error abound:

  • The legal system where laypeople notice that it is no longer the same as the justice system.
  • Ministers of religion who become company men, mainly concerned about mechanical ritualism or social restraint.
  • Doctors who forget about preventative health care (in the west we have sick care, not health care) and are trained to stamp out self-medication.
  • Prosecutors who see a guilty person in every accused (they are judged by the conviction rate after all).
  • Progressive politicians and union leaders who lose the reason why they aspired to that career (only conservative/reactive politicians benefit from professionalism, as good an argument for anarchists as any).
  • Olympics that has nothing to do original values anymore but is simply a branding exercise for the host, the IOC and the athletes, necessary because of the mounting cost of holding it and competing in it.

The unifying theme of this list is that professionals become unfit for their purpose. Like the spectacular failure of Kodak that thought it was in the business of films and paper but whose customers just wanted images, doctors are obsessed with providing healthcare, when the patients just want health, etc.

Lastly, the extremes the of standards ensure waste as professionalism at higher levels will require ever higher costs for ever smaller improvements (explicit costs are obvious, but implicit costs exist also), so these ever more expensive improvement produce ever less value. It takes a lot of talent and effort (away from other, more productive endeavours) to chase sponsors by playing sports that final couple of percent faster, or for lawyers and prosecutors to present that little more sophisticated legal argument.  Studying long hours daily through the childhood to make it in a top profession means some important social and personal skills will not have the chance to develop to he same extent.  The doctor working 60 hour weeks will have less time to form an idea about the politics of the country, so his vote is of lesser value. The more technical training we cram into our lives, the less time and energy is left to educate about prejudices like racism, or other big questions (who has time for history or philosophy classes when we can learn about accounting rules?). These are externalities, costs the whole society pays. I am jealous at these professions for taking my fellow human beings: I want more friends I can share things with that are truly important. I want to encounter emergent ideas, creativity and imagination that playful, versatile and sometimes idle minds produce. I want more flaneurs, eyeballs on the streets and shared spaces, aimed at other people and our shared reality. I want to claim back more areas of human activities for humans and for their original purposes and reward efforts to do more with less.

We all can aspire to work conscientiously, be highly prepared for the task, balancing the interest of the client and environment in educated judgement. But we don’t have to act professional unless for cynical reasons or we feel at home in the modern world of twisted logic, where “the emphasis is on the hammer rather than on driving in the nail, let alone on building the house” (Drucker, 1973 p.23).


Hubert Langerock (1915). Professionalism: A Study in Professional Deformation
American Journal of Sociology p31 of 30-44 Retrieved fro
Drucker, F.P. (1973). The practice of management. New York: HarperCollins Publishers.


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