An Interesting Question

Wednesday, March 03, 2010

Qwertz, after taking issue with a recent article on "16 Things Your Lawyer Won't Tell You," asks the following pregnant question:

Lawyers and doctors both save lives, though in different ways. What do people expect? That young people should put themselves through the hell of law school and the bar exam, incur in excess of $100,000 in student loan debt, work tirelessly in a field that is constantly changing and frequently extremely stressful, and receive nothing, or merely enough on which to survive, in exchange? That's certainly what Congress intends to do to doctors. Clearly, this is the work of pervasive altruism. But here is something I do not understand -- Why has it attacked the professions so disproportionately? [bold added]
I won't claim to have the answer here, but I will put forward a few thoughts this question provoked, and would be interested in hearing yours.

I think that the primary reason that professionals in particular are under attack by altruists is that altruism holds that the proper beneficiary of one's actions should be other people. The observation that someone enjoys material success thus becomes, to an altruist, an indication of moral turpitude: The wealthy man has plainly not been looking out enough for his fellows, or he wouldn't be wealthy, would he? (Granted, many professionals are not wealthy, but many people do not realize this.)

So far, that covers anyone with money who hasn't staved off such opprobrium by acquiring a reputation for philanthropy, but it still doesn't explain why doctors and lawyers dwell in their own special circle of altruist hell, even apart from ordinary businessmen.

To answer that part of the question, we have to ask what it is that sets such professionals apart from other businessmen. One moment's thought will tell you that it's their rare, highly specialized expertise. Qwertz alludes to this in the above passage, and many less educated people also know that lawyers and physicians must undergo additional training. As Qwertz plainly does, one would expect some degree of sympathy for this hard work. And yet, the sympathy plainly isn't there. Why?

It's because the specialized knowledge possessed by professionals makes them more able than most people to be effective in situations that would overwhelm most of us. This means, to the altruist, not only that they are supposed to give more away than most other people, but that they are in a better position to take advantage of other people. (And if mere possession of something someone else doesn't have is viewed as taking advantage of him, many professionals do, by such a standard, take advantage of others.)

Altruism corrodes genuine benevolence towards others. Ayn Rand concretized how this works regarding those we might be inclined to help in the following passage of Atlas Shrugged:
Love of our brothers? That's when we learned to hate our brothers for the first time in our lives. We began to hate them for every meal they swallowed, for every small pleasure they enjoyed, for one man's new shirt, for another's wife's hat, for an outing with their family, for a paint job on their house--it was taken from us, it was paid for by our privations, our denials, our hunger. We began to spy on one another, each hoping to catch the others lying about their needs, so as to cut their "allowance" at the next meeting. We began to have stool pigeons who informed on people, who reported that somebody had bootlegged a turkey to his family on some Sunday--which he'd paid for by gambling, most likely. We began to meddle into one another's lives. We provoked family quarrels, to get somebody's relatives thrown out. Any time we saw a man starting to go steady with a girl, we made life miserable for him. We broke up many engagements. We didn't want anyone to marry, we didn't want any more dependents to feed.

In the old days, we used to celebrate if somebody had a baby, we used to chip in and help him out with the hospital bills, if he happened to be hard-pressed for the moment. Now, if a baby was born, we didn't speak to the parents for weeks. Babies, to us, had become what locusts were to farmers. In the old days, we used to help a man if he had a bad illness in the family. ... (614)
Now turn this around and imagine feeling entitled (thanks, again, to altruism) to some kind of help and having it arbitrarily withheld. (The idea that people should be paid for their services is treated as arbitrary when "trumped" by dire need.) Such a sentiment is wrong, but if you perform such a thought exercise, you can see how altruism corrodes good will not just towards those one might be able to help, but towards those who might be able to offer oneself assistance. The more able someone is, the more spite altruism will sling in his direction.

One final thing would be simple fear of the unknown. I regard myself as a layman on medical and legal matters, but know from experience that I am far more comfortable talking about them than most other people. Many people become suspicious and defensive when on turf so unfamiliar.

This is perhaps another manifestation of how altruism affects the culture, this time at the level of individual psychology. How one deals with the fact that one lacks knowledge about an area is perhaps also being affected by altruism. Does one educate himself or does one stew in ignorance and resentment at the need to exert even the effort to understand on some level what is going on? Will one look at a professional as valuable help who earns your money, or as as a stubborn slave to be goaded in whatever way expedient to just carry the load? Throw in simple prejudice and ignorance (such as Qwertz exposes when he discusses legal forms) and you have a recipe for ill will.

-- CAV


Cogito said...

Hi Gus,

This is a good analysis, but I'm not sure that it answers Qwertz's question. As I understood it, he was not asking "why are doctors and lawyers so villified", rather he's asking "given that these professions have so much in common, why are lawyers villified to such a greater extent than doctors are?"

Mike said...

Wow, that 16 things... article was a wallbanger, and your comments spot-on.

Some quick observations...

1. Forms. People see forms and a legal bill and think "I could have done that myself!" But they could not have. It's like the 10-minute phone call that ends a case and costs $500. It's not that the attorney's five minutes of time were worth $500... it's that he had the training to know what to do to end your case and charged $500 to apply that learned skill. To be unwilling to pay that bill is to expect an attorney to handhold you through filling out your own forms, without compensation.

2. Delegation. It doesn't matter who generates the work. The attorney is legally responsible for his product. It can literally make or break his career. People think that if the attorney has efficiency-promoting internal structure in his business, that he should reduce prices to reflect that. The market will decide that. If an attorney thinks he can get more business by charging a bit less and still get the work done thanks to subordinates, forms, etc, then he will! And the other attorneys will have to decide whether or not to compete with the new lower price. Capitalism wins again.

3. It's true that you may not need an attorney for some matters, but that doesn't mean it isn't a good idea to hire one. Contracts with invalid or illegal provisions are often void, depending on severability, and defective wills get logjammed in probate and cost everyone time and money. If you want to brew your own, you take the risk that you're going to screw it up. Why are people willing to turn over a $500 transmission rebuild to a mechanic without a second thought, but think they're perfectly capable of practicing law as a layperson? Is it because it's "just a document"? I suspect because it's not physical labor, so they can't perceive on a granular level that it is in fact work to generate it.

4. As for the absurd claim that lawyers "don't know much about the law," Qwertz isn't nearly firm enough at refuting that claim. It's this simple: If you can pass any state's bar exam, I assure you, you know a lot about the law. An order of magnitude more than even the most law-interested layperson. People think they can wing it, but then they realize pretty quickly when the chips are down that they can't, and that's when they call an attorney.

Now it's not that there aren't things wrong with attorneys and the legal industry. There are. Not the least of which is that the type of person who makes the ideal client for an attorney is not generally the same as the person who will benefit most from the help of an attorney. But we don't solve those things by fiat, constricting the rights of producers to serve those in need. We solve this through a free market, where individuals can make the decisions that work best for them.

Beth said...

I think all of the reasons you mention are important contributions, but I would add one more: licensing.

Through licensing, physicians restrict competition, maintain control over access to many medications and procedures, and frequently serve as a gatekeeper for insurance reimbursement. All these increase a patient's sense of a doctor's power over them. The relationship is not a free and open one between legal equals. A similar relationship is created by licensing laws for the practice of law.

I wonder how much resentment would dissipate if we had a free market in the practices of law and medicine? Not all of it--because many people would still feel they have a right to service based on need, but it sure would open up the playing field.

Note: I am a physician.

Brad Harper said...

I think certain professionals, doctors and lawyers especially, are generally regarded as amongst the brightest members of our culture, which would also add a hearty dose of "hatred of the good" into the resentment brew.

"They make more than me, they're rich, they're greedy, they intimidate me with their vast knowledge, and they've somehow excelled in this mysterious realm of reality - I hate them."

Brad Harper said...

This line just came to mind...

"I am the man whose existence your blank-outs were intended to permit you to ignore. I am the man whom you did not want either to live or to die. You did not want me to live, because you were afraid of knowing that I carried the responsibility you dropped and that your lives depended upon me; you did not want me to die, because you knew it."

Doctors are resented for the reasons already discussed, but even man-hating brutes retain slivers of common-sense which highlight that such professionals are necessary evils whom should be kept alive for the purpose of serving others.

Steve D said...

“Clearly, this is the work of pervasive altruism.”

You know, I don’t disagree with this but I am guessing there is something even nastier than altruism also at work here which may explain why professionals are attacked so disproportionately. I think this also has something to do with egalitarianism as well and perhaps some envy. There may be a whole lot of unwholesome emotions factoring into this.

“One moment's thought will tell you that it's their rare, highly specialized expertise.”
“The more able someone is, the more spite altruism will sling in his direction.”

It sounds like it could be envy to me. Highly specialized expertise is of great value, more so I suppose that simple wealth. Professionals are more highly respected than regular businessmen?

However figuring out the precise causes here might be very difficult.

Gus Van Horn said...


Very long day at work, so just a quick thanks for your additional comments.

Cogito raises a further question/brings it to my attention that is worth a word.

I think that it is easier for most people to grasp the necessity of doctors than of lawyers, making the need for a lawyer seem arbitrary on top of everything else.


Gus Van Horn said...


Licensing may well contribute, but that said, I suspect it's also one of those things that, in a free society would be replaced by something quite similar.

Park said...

I liked your article, and found it particularly resonant with my situation on several levels. I’m a 3L studying tax law, a particularly vehemently disliked (by some) type of lawyer. I was going to say something about exactly how complicated forms can still be (and how much trouble you can get in trying to DIY), but I've been beaten to the point. To which poster I ask: where are you getting a $500 trans rebuild?!? I've never heard below $1500. (Ironically, transmission work is a boogey-man amongst mechanics; most grease monkeys will refuse to do trans work, though it really isn't that much different from the normal mechanic-ing; oddly on point for this topic).
As for those who have a "fear of the unknown" as you put it, have these people even looked at a statutory code, for example the internal revenue code? Why would anyone have anything but gratitude to someone who deals with such a complex and inscrutable subject for them, and to such material benefit for them? Though of course, it is probably not the people who benefit from tax lawyers’ advice belittling such lawyers, but rather those who envy the people well off enough to need such council.
I’d also like to elaborate a little on your point about forced altruism in the legal services. The self-sacrifice often foisted upon practicing attorneys by the perversely named “ethical codes” of law is sickening. Nothing is quite so starkly brutal as being confronted with the idea of forced intellectual labor on nonconsensual terms. Nothing disgusts me more than those vermin who seek to literally enslave other men’s minds.

Park said...

I neglected the issue of licensing. I totally agree that governmental licensing is a farce and a fraud. Believe me, I'm paying through the nose to meet my "entry fee" into that great monopoly, somewhere on the order of $80,000, all told (not including the forgone income!). However, Gus is right about how necessary discriminating elements are for law practitioners. I have personally seen lay persons try to argue (relatively simple) legal cases: it's painful. It's like watching a blind child stumble around in an unfamiliar room. I think that certification [Underwriters Laboratory listing for lawyers?? :)] would arise almost immediately, for such a reason. Even beyond a certification or such, a legal education (while granted, many improvements can be made to such) is absolutely necessary to the law. And no, I'm not just talking about some complex area of the law that wouldn't exist in a rational society, I definitely include the commercial codes (Oh UCC article 9, how I loathe you!). There are some things that are entirely within the comprehension of someone with a few hours to study some basic rules and laws. But the actual practice of law might as well be ancient Greek for the ability of the majority of people to understand. I think, as Gus pointed out, this leads people to think that "If I can represent myself over a traffic ticket, surely I can represent myself on murder charges." And no, you can't. It takes years of study followed by years of guided practice to develop a legal mind in a single area (never mind several different areas), just as it does for engineers, doctors, accountants, etc. (i.e. any professional). This is simply the economic rule of "rational ignorance": it simply doesn't make sense for one person to be their own butcher, baker, and barber. They can pay someone else to do it cheaper and better than they can, so it's wasteful to try to do it all. Thus, while the legal monopoly of licensing is wrong, there probably wouldn't be much change in the structure of the practice of law in a free society.

Gus Van Horn said...

Thanks for your comments, Park.

I'll briefly touch on two points:

(1) I agree that something like a UL for lawyers would arise, and have even made a similar argument myself, about another topic.

(2) Strictly speaking, as a tax lawyer, I would characterize your particular service more as protection from them from having as much of their own property confiscated as might otherwise occur. Calling it a "material benefit" risks the appearance of a moral sanction to government theft.

Mike said...


It seems you're caught in a bit of a pickle here. I certainly respect your decision to moderate comments, but the resulting delay and disconnect pretty much squashes much viable discussion. I do notice that you allow anonymous posts. Perhaps not moderating, but disallowing anons would safely open things up? No offense intended of course -- I don't presume to tell you how you should run your blog. Just making the observation.


I suppose it depends on the car and transmission. I just had my trans quit on my 1999 Accord, and I was quoted $500 in labor for a rebuild or replacement, as long as I supplied the parts. This was at a small local garage of course. The Honda dealers in town all wanted far more and were looking to make retail on both the labor and the parts. The cost would have been more than my car was worth. You can read all about the thrilling saga on my blog, linked from my name. If people shopped for lawyers the way I shopped for a transmission replacement, perhaps there wouldn't be as much resentment at the cost of legal work.

Steve D said...

If Cogito is right the difference may be more easily explained.

Doctors deal with objective reality and the save you from nature. Lawyers on the other hand save you from other men. It would seem that because of this doctors would seem more efficacious and therefore a better target for altruism.

Most of the work lawyers do today would not be necessary in a ideal society with a minimal government. There would be a lot fewer laws, those that remained would be necessary and simpler and a generally higher level of goodwill which would mean a lot fewer disputes would ever make it to court.

Gus Van Horn said...


I've noticed (and appreciate your suggestion), but haven't had much time lately to look for a decent solution.

The problem will go away for a time in a couple of weeks, when I am once more able to access my blog during normal working hours.


Your point partially overlaps mine, but the fact that much of what lawyers do shouldn't be necessary is a good additional point.


Park said...

Steve said, "Most of the work lawyers do today would not be necessary in a ideal society with a minimal government. There would be a lot fewer laws, those that remained would be necessary and simpler ..."

I used to think the same; I no longer do. The majority of what lawyers do deals with "private" law: contracts, estate planning, torts, business planning & organization, family law, etc. would still be necessary (never mind criminal law, which would prob. see very little change). And yes, there are many laws that need substantial changes in order to be morally proper. Lawyers' jobs would certainly lose some complexity and there would be numerous changes in the substantive laws, but lawyers would still be just as prevalent and necessary in a "proper" society.

Jim May said...

Park: while you are right that lawyers would still be necessary and important in a free society, I think that Steve D's point stands, both for reasons of legal complexity/arbitrariness, and for other reasons.

First: the need for legal specialization is driven as much by outright volume as it is by complexity; no single lawyer can possible be familiar with all that. The tax code alone proves this point too.

Second: there are whole areas of the law that would not exist in a free society, period. Tax law, environmental law, antitrust law, immigration law, traffic law, labor law and all the regulatory areas would cease to exist outright. That's a lot of lawyers.

Third, pursuant to the second: huge swathes of every individual life would be emancipated from having to deal with government or law, whereas today, laws are entangled with things as picayune as toilet tank sizes and how we use the products we buy. Criminal law, accordingly, would see a big reduction in activity just from the elimination of so many non-crimes from the books.

Last but not least: what efficiency gains would we see with the elimination of intellectual pragmatism from the legal milieu? See how *short* the laws used to be, versus today.

The nonobjectivity of law, in terms of both its epistemological flaws and its unconstrained invasion of every aspect of our lives, is what has necessitated the huge number of lawyers we have; it is an example of the "broken window fallacy".

Gus Van Horn said...

"See how *short* the laws used to be, versus today."

My favorite would be, "Congress shall make no law abridging the freedom of production and trade."

Richard said...


While the altruism aspect is certainly relevant in as a means of selling socialized medicine to the voter. I believe the deeper motive among politicians has nothing to do with altruism, so much as for power and control, given them by voters.

That said, I see another reason for the unequal efforts to conscript doctors over lawyers: a large portion of politicians are lawyers. Those politicians know, with a thrill, what they are doing to doctors, but want to protect themselves and their kind.

Gus Van Horn said...

"Those politicians know, with a thrill, what they are doing to doctors, but want to protect themselves and their kind."

Do they? If they did, they'd be in the forefront of stopping ObamaCare.

Richard said...

But then the politician- lawyers wouldn't have the power ObamaCare enables. (A misunderstanding is somewhere here. Perhaps I was too brief.)

Gus Van Horn said...

It was unclear to me that you were addressing the common resent ment against lawyers (whether one in particular deserves it or not).

That said, the fact that so many of today's politicians abuse their specialized knowledge would certainly contribute.

Qwertz said...

Thank you, Gus!

I'm glad you got some productive comments on this subject. I had to disable comments on the original post because of the disgusting volume of vile, hateful garbage people were sending. I haven't published any of it, but I might later as examples of the way people see lawyers.


Gus Van Horn said...

You're welcome, Qwertz. I appreciate your taking the time to discuss that list.