The key difference between a trade and a profession is simple. Trades are regulated externally. A profession is self-regulating. Trades have unions. Professions have bar associations and medical boards.
The nature of unions is that they protect the weakest member of the labor group. That’s a powerful concept when a junior auto worker is protected from being fired unfairly, but it’s a corrosive one when it’s protecting a bad teacher from being fired for misconduct. In both cases, collective bargaining is used to guarantee better conditions of employment and protections from firing or discipline being imposed by the bosses against the workers.
The nature of a professional body like a bar association or medical board is to maintain the high standards of the profession and ensure members of the profession behave ethically and properly. When a bad lawyer is brought before the bar association for an ethical complaint like lying to a court or stealing from a client, it is other lawyers who determine whether there is enough misconduct to disbar the bad lawyer, removing him/her from the profession.
When a group is regulating itself, the incentives are there for the good apples to get rid of the bad apples before they spoil the bunch. When a union is defending workers against the bosses, the incentive is there to protect all apples from being disciplined or fired, regardless of whether they are good or bad.
In the law, members of the bar pay dues into a fund for clients who are harmed by bad attorneys. This is in addition to the mandatory malpractice insurance, where each lawyer has to provide insurance against any future misconduct they may have in their career. Bad lawyers cost the entire profession, and if a lawyer is bad enough, they become uninsurable and are unable to practice law.
In policing, police unions negotiate protections against disciplining and firing bad officers, qualified immunity prevents them from being sued in their individual capacity, and the members of the community pay the civil rights damages awards for police brutality.
If we want to address the structural problems with policing in America, police don’t need more regulation from outside, they need to regulate themselves. Policing should be a profession, with standards set by a professional body, and liability for professional misconduct coming out of a fund that members of the profession pay into. Each officer should carry their own malpractice insurance, with premiums set based on training and disciplinary history, as well as based on departmental disciplinary history
Nicholas Sarwark is Executive Director of the Libertarian Policy Institute. He served as Chair of the Libertarian National Committee from 2014 to 2020, a period of unprecedented growth. Over the last two decades, he has worked as a systems developer for a major non-profit, tried over 30 cases to a jury as a deputy public defender in Colorado, and managed the oldest independent car dealership and loan company in Phoenix. He founded Wedge Squared Strategies in 2019, a strategy, communications, and campaign consulting firm that helps individuals and organizations maximize their impact on the world. Licensed to practice law in Colorado and New Hampshire, he lives in Manchester, New Hampshire with his wife Valerie and their four children where they volunteer to build a better local community.