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The Rise of the Professional Amateur

The world is changing, and the advance of technology has reached an amazing rate. Still more amazing, however, is the way in which technology results in ever more decentralized knowledge and ability, allowing individuals from every walk of life unprecedented access to formerly restrictive fields. The 3D printing process has been in the news a lot lately owing its potential to put manufacturing directly into the hands of consumers and the implications of such a change for the future, but this sort of thing is hardly new. Gutenberg’s printing press gave books to the masses and resulted in dramatically improved literacy and the dissemination of knowledge. The Internet has done a similar thing on an even greater scale.

There is no denying that these innovations have greatly improved the lot of humanity, but not everyone views the resulting decentralization as good. While glancing through the pages of Real Clear Technology, I came across an article about the effect of the digital camera on the photography industry. The author, a professional photographer himself, offers the following analysis:

“If you want to be a Professional Photographer, there are absolutely NO qualifications or schooling required. There’s no photography license needed, no college degree, and no board certification. There’s not even a universal definition of what a Professional Photographer is or is not. The barriers to entry are zero, and there are no industry-wide standards. If you have a camera and a Facebook page, you’re in; you can call yourself a Pro.”

In the context of the article, this is uttered in a tone of regret, with the author lamenting what he views as a loss of standards in his profession, but to me that paragraph reads as a statement of triumphant optimism. It’s true, there’s nothing stopping anyone with a camera from using it to make a living for themselves. For a minimal capital investment, a talented photographer can start his own business and start collecting clients. This is the very meaning of “the land of opportunity.”

Far removed from the era of guilds who jealously guarded their secrets from competitors, the information age has made a vast array of productive skills available to the masses, skills which were formerly only within the reach of a select few elites. Of course from their point of view, these elites have every reason to be upset. Just as advances in printing technology devalued the role of the professional scrivener, digital cameras have diminished the once exalted stature of the professional photographer. And while we all should embrace the idea of affordable photographs for all, most photographers, like the scriveners before them, would prefer not to.

Therefore, in an attempt to protect their jobs from interloping amateurs, professional groups have always lobbied for stricter standards for would-be practitioners. Note the references to schooling and licensing requirements in the quote above. Despite the fact that the opportunities for self-employment have never been greater due to technological growth, these artificial restrictions on competition hold back entrepreneurs of all stripes from starting their own businesses and earning an honest living on their own terms.

Imagine if the government did impose the kind of restrictions mentioned above on photographers. Not only would amateurs be shut out of the market, making it more difficult for them to gain experience and knowledge about their field, but consumers would be harmed as well. Professionals required to meet schooling and licensing requirements charge higher rates, both to recoup their cost and because of lack of competitive pressure. This means that people with little disposable income would often be unable to afford photography services at the important events in their life, such as weddings and graduations. With the current lack of restrictions, however, these people are free to choose a quality and price level that best meets their needs.

The lack of government restrictions on the photography industry allows not only for greater consumer choice and welfare, but provides a way for amateurs to earn a living doing something that they love, without having to depend on huge corporations or the government dole for their daily bread. Sadly however, not all industries are so fortunate.

Even in the midst of an economy where jobs are desperately needed, federal and state governments still erect obstacles to self-employment, requiring burdensome education and licensing standards for everything from florists, to hairstylists, to house painters, to interior decorators. While technology has indeed allowed the distinction between the amateur and professional to melt away, wrongheaded regulations of many industries keep that distinction firmly in place, much to the detriment of individual independence as well as the economy as a whole.

When it comes down to it, the question we should all be asking ourselves is this. Do we really want to live in a society where we must ask the state’s permission merely to earn a living?