Rem acu tetigimus

(1) Analysis   (2) alternative view   (3) principle betrayed   (4) thanks   (5) correction   (6) editorial announcement


This item is taken, with permission, from the Encyclopaedia Economica Erigena, pp 3174 ff.

The professionalism transition.  Social phase theory does not belong to economics proper (pace Tisbutt, 1983, and Bull, 1995).  However, some of its concepts have a very definite relevance to economic developments.  Foremost among these is the professionalism transition.

      The broad historical cycle in which this is located is the well-established sequence barbarism –  social stratification – organisation – byzantinism – disintegration – barbarism.  The professionalism transition is the midpoint of this cycle.

      The fundamental structures of a given society are settled in the second phase.  This often takes the form of the establishment of a feudal system, although the two concepts are of course by no means equivalent.  Thereafter it is normal for the third phase to proceed over a lengthy period.  Exceptions, such as that imposed by Qin Shi Huang Ti (qv), are rare.  The third phase sees steadily increasing complexity both in the society’s structures, and in individual activities integrated within those structures.   For much of this period, the process is evolutionary, with changes responding to natural pressures on actual practitioners over decades.  The result will in most forms of activity in the society be a reasonable adequacy of response to the needs perceived by the population.  In general, business in this or that sphere goes ahead fairly effectively and seldom causes serious avoidable inconvenience, or worse, to those on the receiving end.  Of course there will be points of friction.  There may seem perhaps to be no satisfactory way of dealing with one particular type of situation that occurs from time to time.  Occasionally individual cases go wrong.  Junior members of an organisation often regard their seniors as being slow to accept new ideas, and some of the latter may be suspected of taking unfair personal advantage of a privileged position.  In some instances seniors may prove excessively authoritarian, even in advanced societies.  (In 1908 two trainee nurses in Cheshire starved to death after the matron who had ordered them confined to their quarters without food was stricken with pneumonia and was unable to rescind her command.)

      Such irritations and conflicts will inevitably tend to increase as time passes, simply by reason of the increase in both the complexity of societal structures, and the numbers of the population, both of which developments are reliable concomitants of the third phase.  If the society contains clearly distinct groups, one or more of which can regard itself as particularly disadvantaged then the outcome may be revolution (qv), but in relatively homogeneous nations, the gradual accumulation of difficulties, or more exactly perceived difficulties, leads instead to the professionalism transition.  It is not the simple accumulation that tips the balance, however.  There must be some trigger event, typically defeat or even a costly victory in war, but domestic catastrophes such as a famine or revelations of major criminality in some pillar of society have also served.

      From a historical point of view the transition occupies a remarkably small period of time.  If the preceding and following phases are measured in centuries, the professionalism transition may be over within a decade.

      It will start in some particular form of activity – perhaps the judicial system, or the distribution of food, but rapidly make itself felt in other areas.  The principal interest for economics is its appearance in public administration and to a lesser extent in the practices of the major areas of commercial administration, but precisely parallel changes take place in many activities as diverse as schoolteaching, medical practice, broadcasting, or even folk dancing (on which see Gillot, 1987).

      Previously the benchmark of good practice has been conformity to established procedures; now, the cry goes up ‘We must seek out a new and better way to do this’.   In one field after another there are calls for reorganisation and review, for planning conferences, for commissions to establish approved forms of procedure, or constituent assemblies.  Bodies of rules must be drawn up, typically ‘for the sake of clarity’, or ‘to prevent a recurrence’ of some undesirable event which, however, may very well have been a rare result of special factors unlikely to be repeated.  Training programmes, in some cases lasting for years, are put in place to ensure adherence to the new rules.  Traditional practice becomes ipso facto suspect.  The proponents of change acquire prestige from that fact alone.

      A remarkable feature of the professional transition is that a large proportion, and often the great majority, of the many analysts and consultants who now appear as ‘experts’ on this or that form of endeavour have little experience of or aptitude for the very activity on which they become advisors and regulators.  Frequently,  a new and in some sense alien tier of managers (who had not been known to be necessary twenty years before) are imposed, not only with authority over  those who perform but also with superior conditions of employment and higher salaries.

      Byzantinism, which follows, is not in itself wholly without benefits in the initial stages, but its longterm effect is to repress innovation, eliminate desirable flexibility, adapt systems to conformity with a set of rules rather than the situations that arise, discourage independent thought, and in the end to strangle most areas of productive activity, thus leading into the penultimate phase, disintegration.


Alternative view (R.Baker) The remarkable idea has got around that women should have a percentage of places reserved for them in various spheres which some regard as desirable, such as politics and business administration.  (In theory the desirability may be understandable, but just take a look at what they’re like in practice.)  This is baffling.  The simple fact that women are around 50% of the electorate does not even begin to be a sufficient reason.  To say women have a different viewpoint and this justifies a reserved percentage is twaddle, until you admit the justification is just as valid in claiming a reserved percentage for men; there will be few if any feminists who would accept that most of the candidates for the forthcoming election for mayor of Paris must be barred since the roster is at present overwhelmingly female.  The claim that there is discrimination against women for no other reason than their gender is doubtless valid in many individual cases but it rests on anecdotal evidence, and who would doubt that male chauvinists would swiftly produce a similar body of anecdotal evidence in the opposite sense?  To argue that we know discrimination against women must actually be general because [1] a general discrimination would keep their numbers in e.g. politics and boardrooms proportionately low, and [2] those numbers are proportionately low, is simply to fall victim to that old bugbear of first-year students of logic, the fallacy of affirming the consequent.  One can just as well maintain that there is a general prejudice against the rhino in Ireland, as proved by the fact that almost none are found there.

            Supposing that we were to accept this simple-minded expectation that proportions found in one situation should be repeated in a different situation (it does not take long for laboratory rats to get past this misunderstanding), let us note that on average across Europe the average age of the electorate is 38; that is, approximately half are older than that.  There seems no shadow of a reason why they, with their distinct viewpoint should not have an equally good claim to a reserved percentage of places.  (And of course the same will go for those under that age.)  Or take another factor.  To the amazement of certain social scientists it has been found that in country after country almost exactly half the electorate is under average height and half over.  Now, here we are onto something which has been subject to serious research, as pursued in Harvard, and published in the Economist.  There is good evidence, not merely anecdotal, that successful politicians, and leaders in business are generally above average in height.  Here then we do see an interesting case for stipulating that places should be reserved for one side, only, of a great divide.  We can add incidentally that this will disproportionately favour women – and good luck to them here since here there is a rational basis for preference!

            So we have no objection to the idea of a quota in activities which different large sections of a community want to undertake – when there is  sound reason.  In fact there is a good case for one quota that distinguishes between men and women, in many desirable areas of activity which could actually be done equally well by both.  There should be a stipulation that women, specifically women under 35 (apologies for giving arbitrary figures, but alternatives would cause administrative chaos), do not get more than 30% of places.  This is because there is a disposition to favour this category so overwhelming that it has become accepted as normal, so prevalent as to be invisible.  It is quite unsurprising in evolutionary terms since it reflects an exceedingly powerful factor favouring the survival of the human throughout millions of years.  Some men, and women above that age, notice its effects, although often reluctant to refer to it explicitly.  That it exists is not in doubt.  If you do not believe this, you can of course pore over statistics; but it is simpler just to go to a highway with a busy and continuous flow of motor traffic, but also a constant arrival of pedestrians who need to cross the road but who have neither lights nor police to help interrupt the rush of vehicles.  Compare the time which other pedestrians have to wait before making it to the other side, compared to the young females.

            ‘No’ to quotas; but fair play for each individual!


Principle betrayed: The most remarkable and disgraceful aspect of the rescue package just agreed between the representatives of international plutocracy and bureaucracy, and Cyprus (or more exactly some members of the party of the government in the parliament of the hellenophone part of Cyprus – some half dozen or so men) was almost entirely overlooked by most international commentators.  Even lengthy reports included it, if at all, as a final trivial note like the last wave of the hand of a visiting head of state getting into the limousine heading off to the airport.  It is the fact that the Cypriot president was instructed that he was not to put the package before his parliament, the national representatives of the people (including the 8,500 employees of the Laiki bank) who would actually pay the price of the rescue.  (It seems unlikely that there was a single player on the pluto-bureaucratic team who could not carry the sort of loss that was about to spell financial ruin for many of those on the island, let alone who would lose his job as a result of the deal; it may be that the same goes for the handful of individuals from the opposing negotiators.)

            So a ‘union of democratic states’ is compatible with the idea that a small geographically remote oligarchy can have the power to dictate at their will terms which mean unemployment or bankruptcy to hundreds or even thousands, without the latter having any say in the decision?


Thanks: to advertising.  Once, a smile was a signal of friendliness.  Now, a sign of insincerity.


Correction: We are assured that there is no truth in recent reports in some American newspapers about an alleged accord between America and Saudi Arabia over the contentious issue of capital punishment.  These claimed that Saudi Arabia would continue to carry out executions, using traditional procedures (as would America), but that it would permit a surgical team, equipped with the latest American technology, to be posted at the execution scene so that any families who wished to do so could have the head immediately reattached, allowing in favourable cases a return to normal life, with the prescribed punishment having been carried out.


Note from the Acting Editor:   An inside source tells us that CENSOR, strengthened by the arrival of an expert in cricket management from Australia, intends to lift the provisional order to us not to post material, imposing instead a general ban on any site accepting material from us, continuing indefinitely.  This ‘as a warning to any others tempted to show lack of proper respect for authority’.  They are too late. Our Editor has e-mailed from his ‘meditation centre’ in Cebu, citing still dangerously high stress levels, and asking me to act as Editor for the foreseeable future (as if I would!)  Simon is  in Cyprus, from where he is to join his father in Yaroslavl.  Manos was last seen helping two giggling island ladies out of his boat on the quay at Weymouth ten days ago.  Most important, Isabelita, responsible for 80% of the work and 95% of the organisation in this office, has been offered a post as Associate Professor with tenure in a very reputable American university.  The present, unauthorised, posting is therefore the last of its series.  A share in the ideas of defending literacy, defending individual rights, and – where possible – resisting injustice, is now entrusted to your care.

            (If anyone has a home for a 140 lb dog, a Ridgeback-Pitbull cross, they should get in touch through  Anyone taking him must collect in person.)

p.s Isabelita has reminded me that I should certainly thank those who have contacted us, perhaps especially Brigid McK and Paula F – intelligent brickbats were as welcome as the agreements and extensions to material in the postings


honor hominesque honesti floreant