The value of professional associations

29/05/2009

I have followed with interest the discussion on what should be the role of the New Zealand Institute of Forestry (NZIF§). It seems that a frequent position espoused by members is that the NZIF has two options to provide value to its members: making registration a legal requirement and ensuring high professional standards. I would contend that the first one is an oxymoron: ‘let us create value by making membership compulsory, pfizer so then members derive value from membership’. This generates as much value to members as a protection racket does to its victims. The second approach relies on the existence of an authority with the capacity to evaluate high professional standards. But Who are our peers in our narrow fields of specialization? Who can judge us as being ‘good enough’ to sell services as a growth modeler, help forest economist, tree breeder, etc? At the end of the day, the market is king (or queen), and we are judged every time that we complete a professional assignment. The same goes for other activities: I would hire an accountant or a lawyer based on recommendations and experience—which are often translated in the market place through availability and fees charged—rather than by membership of a professional association.

That leaves us with how do we really derive value from voluntary association? We interact with other members, we exchange information, we learn. Do we strictly need the NZIF for this learning? Probably not, although it facilitates the process. Maybe the right function for the NZIF is to create opportunities for professional development, conferences, coordinated submissions, and making clear the role of forestry to New Zealand society. I think that the NZIF provides value by making communication easier for its members while any artificial barriers will only be detrimental to the interest of people working in the forestry sector and to their customers.

P.S. This quote from Free to Choose§ by Milton and Rose Friedman makes the point very clearly:

Licensure is widely used to restrict entry, particularly for occupations like medicine that have many individual practitioners dealing with a large number of individual customers. As in medicine, the boards that administer the licensure provisions are composed primarily of members of the occupation licensed—whether they be dentists, lawyers, cosmetologists, airline pilots, plumbers, or morticians. There is no occupation so remote that an attempt has not been made to restrict its practice by licensure. According to the chairman of the federal Trade Commission: “At a recent session of one state legislature, occupational groups advanced bills to license themselves as auctioneers, well-diggers, home improvement contractors, pet groomers, electrologists, sex therapists, data processors, appraisers, and TV repairers. Hawaii licenses tattoo artists. New Hampshire licenses lightning-rod salesman.”

The justification offered is always the same: to protect the consumer. However, the reason is demonstrated by observing who lobbies at the state legislature for the imposition or strengthening of licensure. The lobbyists are invariably representatives of the occupation in question rather than of the customers. True enough, plumbers presumably know better than anyone else what their customers need to be protected against. However, it is hard to regard altruistic concern for their customers as the primary motive behind their determined efforts to get legal power to decide who may be a plumber.

Filed in forestry, new zealand

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