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Wednesday, July 20, 2011

He’s No Bruce Lee

Licensing versus certification.

My first thought was, “He’s no Bruce Lee.” Not that I could do any better, mind you. But as I sat watching the man test for a black belt, it was obvious he was no Bruce Lee.

I made this observation a few years ago while attending my oldest son’s first Taekwondo belt test. The man was about my age, and he was struggling through his routine. His jumps were low and his kicks soft. In fact it appeared the bending force applied by his master’s strong arms did more to break the board than the thrust of the man’s kick. That it took seven tries to split the pine board along its grain showed a true lack of skill and snap. Nevertheless the school awarded him a black belt.

A video on the case against O.J. Simpson, which I recently watched, stirred this memory. The video hypothesized an alternative sequence of the events leading up to the deaths of Nicole Brown and Ron Goldman. In one scene two martial arts experts dramatized their version of the fight between Goldman and his assailant. A central assumption was that since Goldman was a black belt the fight would have approximated a Bruce Lee film – as if every black belt is Bruce Lee. But what is a black belt? And do all black belts have the same abilities, strengths, and so on? Are they all Bruce Lee?

Of course not. The black belt is a product of the free market. Anyone can form a “school” and award belts of any color. However, individuals determine the value of a belt, and the market decides whether the school succeeds or fails.

Belt Factories

Some schools are noted for their high standards while others lean more toward belt factories – places where a nonreturned check is the only attribute required to obtain the next belt. Students align themselves with the school that meets their individual wants. Some desire to earn their belts in the dojang with sweat and tears; others would rather take an easier route. All end up, by their demonstrated preferences, benefiting from this situation.

The man I observed can tell family and friends that he is a black belt. And if they imagine Bruce Lee-type skills … well, that is their business.

It would appear that we have a market failure of sorts: folks of wildly varying skills claiming to be black belts, some able to give a Bruce Lee performance, others looking more pathetic than potent. Shouldn’t government solve this supposed market failure with licensing requirements and other regulations?

The medical profession is highly licensed and regulated. A belief exists that if the State did not license doctors and nurses, incompetent medical professionals would be indistinguishable from competent ones. And to make matters worse, incompetent doctors and nurses would flood the market, and death and despair would result. Of course this assumes the consumer is a mindless sheep with no ability to identify and exercise preferences. But a simple survey of the market disproves this notion.

Fedako Certified

The market for information-technology professionals is relatively unregulated. Anyone can claim to be proficient (a black belt, so to speak) in Microsoft software – just add it to your resume. In fact we could work out a deal where you claim to be Fedako certified in the software. However, only those who meet certain requirements can claim to be Microsoft certified.

So is there any difference between the market for certification in Microsoft software and the market for black belts in martial arts? No. Fedako certification is not being demanded because potential consumers (those seeking certification) see no value in it. Employers want Microsoft certified employees, so those seeking their employment (consumers of Microsoft certification) want it as well.

If employers looking to hire black belts in Taekwondo demanded a certain level of expertise, they could decide to accept only applicants with black belts from schools of martial arts that hold their students to that level. Some schools would align to the new standard while others would not. Or the employers could create their own individual tests to validate skills. Either way the market would not fail the employer qua consumer.

Certification Demand

The same would hold in the medical profession absent government regulations. Consumers of medical services – patients, as well as insurance companies and employers, and more – would demand certification to show expertise. This would force most if not all medical and nursing schools to set a standard that met that demand, as I can imagine only a few students paying for an education that provides no likelihood of income.

It is probable that various levels of certification – different colored belts, so to speak – would exist. This would allow each consumer to satisfy his desire for a certain quality of medical service given our world of scarcity. And this is not a market failure. It is in fact a market success.

So if someone without Bruce Lee skills wants to buy a black belt, let him. And if someone else without competent skills wants to be called doctor, let him. These personal decisions are none of our business. Liberty means the freedom for some to claim black belt status and the freedom for others to ignore it.