Jan 9, 2023
This article was originally published by Patrick Carroll at The Foundation for Economic Education.
There’s an alternative to government licensing, and it already exists.
On January 3, Jordan Peterson used his recently-reinstated Twitter account to alert the world of a new development in his seemingly-endless battle with mainstream institutions.
“The Ontario College of Psychologists has demanded that I submit myself to mandatory social-media communication retraining with their experts for, among other crimes, retweeting Pierre Poilievre and criticizing Justin Trudeau and his political allies,” Peterson wrote.
According to Peterson, the College’s actions were prompted by roughly a dozen complaints submitted over the past four years. Notably, none of the complaints were brought by people Peterson interacted with in a clinical context. Rather, they seem to be motivated by political disagreements and only feature vague accusations of harm resulting from some of Peterson’s social media rhetoric.
“What exactly have I done that is so seriously unprofessional?” Peterson asks in a National Post column. “It is hard to tell with some of the complaints (one involved the submission of the entire transcript of a three-hour discussion on the Joe Rogan podcast), but here are some examples.”
He goes on to list some of the accusations of unprofessional conduct levied against him, which include retweeting a comment about the unnecessary severity of the Covid-19 lockdowns, criticizing Justin Trudeau and other politicians, and making a joke about the prime minister of New Zealand.
Peterson has indicated he is eager to release all the details of the accusations so the public can see the evidence and judge for themselves who is in the right, but the College has thus far not given permission to this effect.
To atone for his errors, Peterson was told he needs to take a mandatory social-media retraining course at his own expense. The course will be considered finished when the College’s experts are satisfied with his progress.
Naturally, Peterson refused to take the course. As a result, he now faces a mandatory public disciplinary hearing and the possible suspension of his clinical license. If he loses his license, he will be barred from practicing clinical psychology in Ontario and from representing himself as a psychologist.
A Tool for Censorship
This isn’t the first time the licensing system has been weaponized against professionals with unpopular views. In an infamous 2021 statement from the College of Physicians and Surgeons of Ontario—the provincial regulatory body for medical doctors—doctors were effectively told to get on board with the official Covid narrative or risk losing their license.
“Physicians hold a unique position of trust with the public,” the statement reads, “and have a professional responsibility to not communicate anti-vaccine, anti-masking, anti-distancing, and anti-lockdown statements and/or promoting unsupported, unproven treatments for COVID-19. Physicians must not make comments or provide advice that encourages the public to act contrary to public health orders and recommendations. Physicians who put the public at risk may face an investigation by the CPSO and disciplinary action when warranted.”
These were not empty threats. One Ontario physician, Dr. Patrick Phillips, had his license suspended in May 2022 for “inappropriate” COVID-19 treatments and advice.
As these and many other examples make clear, the licensing system can be a powerful weapon for censorship. And it’s no mystery why. Professionals need licenses to legally practice their profession. Even if there are relatively few suspensions in practice, the mere fact that your license could be suspended has a huge impact. Self-censorship is likely rampant in fields like law, medicine, and psychology on account of this threat.
The Underlying Problem: Government Licensing
Though the administrators of licensing systems certainly carry much of the blame for intimidating professionals into conformity, the root of the problem is the licensing regulations themselves. If these were private clubs that were threatening to revoke membership, it wouldn’t really matter. The reason this is such a big deal is that these bodies are empowered by the government to strip professionals of their livelihoods. If licensing laws were repealed, these regulatory bodies would have no teeth, and thus no ability to threaten and coerce professionals.
The objection, of course, is that we need licensing to protect consumers from unethical and incompetent practitioners. But why should the government get to decide who is unethical and incompetent? Why not you, the consumer?
“Consumers are ignorant,” we are told. “They need an expert to help them verify competence.”
Fair enough, but that doesn’t mean the government needs to get involved. There’s an alternative system that removes the coercive element while still allowing consumers to verify that the services they buy are trustworthy. That alternative is free-market certification. Anyone who cares about government censorship would do well to at least familiarize themselves with this alternative to the status quo.
Let’s briefly explore how it could work.
How a Free-Market Certification System Could Replace Government Licensing
Though a free-market certification system could take many forms, one form that would likely emerge is a series of voluntary professional associations. Though professionals would be legally allowed to work without an affiliation to a known association, their potential customers will be looking for indicators of trustworthiness, so professionals will find it to their advantage to join these groups. Professional associations like these already exist for precisely this reason in all sorts of unregulated professions, such as Osteopathy.
An association for psychologists might call themselves the Psychological Professionals of Ontario (PPO). To become a member, PPO would have certain requirements you must fulfill, such as graduating from a school they approve of and perhaps passing a test demonstrating to them that you know what you’re doing. Once you’ve met these requirements, PPO would grant you their certificate of approval (membership) which you can then use when advertising to potential clients. PPO would also likely have a series of reasonable rules that their members must abide by in order to keep their certificate. Practitioners who transgress those rules can be kicked out of the association. This could make life somewhat difficult for these practitioners, but—and this is the key difference—it doesn’t interfere with their legal right to practice.
If PPO has a good reputation for high standards, consumers can be confident that a PPO-certified psychologist will be ethical and competent. If PPO gives certificates to psychologists who turn out to be poor practitioners, however, or if they are arbitrary and capricious in their judgments, their reputation could take a hit, and members might move to a competing association with a better track record. Professional associations, then, like any organization on the free market, will live and die by their competence and probity, and will constantly face accountability from the market.
So let’s say I live in such a society without professional licensing and I decide to see a psychologist. Clearly, I won’t just pay the first person on the street who adopts that title. Instead, I might ask friends for recommendations or look online for established practitioners who have been in business for a while. Once I have a short list, I would probably look up consumer reviews on the people I’m considering and look up their professional affiliations. Armed with this information, I’d make a choice. I might not get the best person, but chances are I’ll find someone decent. At the very least, I’ll easily be able to avoid gross incompetence.
“That makes sense,” you might say, “but what about the people who don’t do their homework? Aren’t they at risk of hiring someone incompetent?”
Yes, I suppose they are. But this is hardly for lack of information. They had ample opportunity to verify the qualifications of the seller if they wanted to.
There comes a point where we simply need to say Caveat emptor—let the buyer beware. At the end of the day, it’s the buyer’s responsibility to make sure they know what they’re getting into. And if they get hurt because they didn’t do their due diligence, that’s kind of on them. It’s not the government’s job to protect people from making bad personal choices, especially since what constitutes a “bad choice” is often a matter of contention, as it is in Peterson’s case.
“Once the principle is admitted that it is the duty of the government to protect the individual against his own foolishness,” Mises warned, “no serious objections can be advanced against further encroachments.”
The point is that consumers, not bureaucrats, should determine whose services will be bought on the market. And while it’s true that consumers generally know little about the field in question, professional associations, consumer reviews, and word of mouth are beyond sufficient to provide them with the necessary information to judge whether a given practitioner will be good at their job.
Peterson’s ability to practice psychotherapy should depend on his track record and reputation, not on the whims of bureaucrats. The same goes for every other professional, no matter their field.