The Agenda

Defeating the Incumbent Protection Machine

Three quick links that caught my eye:

(1) By now you may have read Walter Russell Mead’s take on “the Crisis of the American Intellectual,” but I’d like to highlight this passage on guilds:

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.  Just as the industrial revolution broke up the manufacturing guilds, the information revolution today is breaking up the knowledge guilds.  Guild methods are too expensive given society’s rapidly increasing need for the services they provide; we must drastically raise productivity by re-imagining the way our society makes and distributes the services that, currently, the guilds and the learned professions provide.

As Mead goes on to explain, we now have the technologies we need to move beyond guild production to more cost-effective modes:


Fortunately for the rest of society if not for the guilds, developments in IT and telecommunications now make it possible to reduce costs dramatically in the learned professions.  Outsourcing and automation between them can transform the production and delivery of these services.  Moreover, the process of disintermediation will enable many Americans to dispense with the expensive services of the professional classes.  Basic legal services and advice can increasingly be found, free or at very low cost, on the internet.  Many Americans have substituted tax software for accountants; more and more activities once performed by highly paid professionals will be performed by computers and the internet.

Ultimately one suspects that services once reserved for elites will be available for the masses, just as the industrial revolution enabled mass ownership of goods that had once been the preserve of small elites.  

This is a useful framework for thinking through the struggle over the future of education in the United States.

(2) Back in October, Paul Sullivan wrote a short piece on the inaugural Elites Research Network conference at Columbia University, an appropriate home given the role of C. Wright Mills in building their Sociology Department:


D. Michael Lindsay, assistant professor of sociology at Rice University, said his research showed that many of the people now considered elite in America did not start out that way. He is conducting what he described as the largest study ever of top leaders in America, having talked to over 500 so far across business, nonprofits and academia.

He said he had found that a privileged upbringing did not matter as much as generally thought. Nor, he said, did many of the top leaders inherit large sums of money. While many went to top colleges and a large number attended Harvard Business School, the biggest determining factor of whether someone moved into the elite was an early career opportunity.

Being able to look beyond their specialty early — as opposed to being highly specialized their entire career and then thrust into a leadership role — distinguished great leaders more than any inherent advantage in their upbringing, he said.

Combine this with the earlier point: guilds are looking to protect their privileges, and to maintain high barriers to entry. Most public schools, for example, operate on a last hired, first fired basis. The unemployment rate for under-25 workers, including college-educated under-25s, is stubbornly high. The churning of elites may have slowed.

(3) Fortunately, as Hannah Seligson reports, there is a large number of young entrepreneurs creating their own jobs. Not all of the young firms described in the article will scale, but many of them will prove sustainable over time. And even “lifestyle businesses” can have a powerful impact on the broader culture. Overall self-employment rates aren’t increasing — the rate has hovered around 10% for most of the last decade — yet it would be significant if a larger number of elite Americans, the kind of young people who would’ve once flocked to the guilds, embraced self-employment, as it could have a cultural ripple effect.

Esteem for entrepreneurs is and has long been high in the United States, but lowering the cultural barriers to entrepreneurship as a way of life, i.e., making the prospect less intimidating, could change the way many Americans approach the administrative state. We could see new pressure to reduce burdensome regulations to the levels seen in East Asia and northern Europe, or we might even go further.  As WRM writes,

The bureaucratic state is too inefficient to provide the needed services at a sustainable cost – and bureaucratic, administrative governments are by nature committed to maintain the status quo at a time when change is needed.  For America to move forward, power is going to have to shift from bureaucrats to entrepreneurs, from the state to society and from qualified experts and licensed professionals to the population at large.

It is possible that we’re at the start of a virtuous circle. 


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