October 26th, 2008

Michael’s strictures on licensing remind me of the very American Plan B to deal with information asymmetries about specialised skills. This is the one actually applied to US higher education: accreditation. The idea here is that a trade association applies and advertises its own voluntary membership tests. Members of the public can look these up and decide whether the extra cost of going to the accredited supplier is worth it.

Accreditation is an attractively flexible approach.

It copes better than licensing with the many areas where failures of skill are not life-threatening: say actuaries, philosophers and chiropodists. It also copes better with fast-changing skills, like website design. If you are just setting up a simple blog, DIY is a sensible option; but if you are a bank, a vendor of $10,000 watches, or a specialised pornographer you should hire an expert who grasps the finer points of cascading style sheets, multi-browser compatibility and secure servers. How do you find one? If you live in Silicon Valley, word of mouth does fine – this is one reason for geographical concentration. Otherwise you can go by qualifications issued by educational institutions, which just shifts the problem to the reputation of the latter; or by membership in a legitimate trade grouping. Either way, it boils down to accreditation.

Accreditation has its own problems. In many US states, anybody can set up a phony “university” and print off impressive-looking PhD certificates. If you have broken nails in urgent need of TLC, are you going to check whether the manicurist’s qualification is from an institution accredited by the legitimate-sounding National Accrediting Commission of Cosmetology Arts and Sciences or by the Interstate Association of Professional Manicurists, which I’ve just made up?

To protect consumers effectively, accreditation needs indirect legal protection. Privileged access to public funding is the main weapon. Another is denying the use of certain titles to the unaccredited. I would protect the names university, Ph.D, actuary, and of course accredited, though not college, statistician, philosopher or manicurist. But I’d be hard put to defend these choices in any systematic way.

Update 28/10/2008

Language Log’s Mark Liberman has a useful post explaining the difference between the AAPS (Association of American Physicians and Surgeons) and the AAPS (American Association of Physician Specialists). One of these is a wingnut front, the other legitimate. Guess which?

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