OPINION

Inequality and injustice

Greece’s closed-shop professions would be a satirist’s dream if the situations that they create were not already worse than anything anyone could make up. The system is ingenious: A group of individuals, who are either specialized at something or without specific skills, is given a monopoly over an important sector of the economy and is allowed to tightly regulate the group’s membership and exploit its power to ensure the least possible state regulation and the maximum benefit for themselves. Thus they are empowered to force politicians to meet their every demand and can hold the public hostage at will by withholding their services. In the animal and insect kingdoms, and in the world of plants, tightly knit groups of highly privileged individuals who exploit others for their own gain are known as parasites. Here they are the proud members of «closed professions.» The irony is that these undoubtedly valuable sectors of society have managed to corrupt themselves through the selfishness that they present as a given right. They do not care whether their behavior is unjust to others who share the same skills nor whether their actions harm or benefit society. What matters most of all is safeguarding their own privileges. If this sounds unduly harsh, we need only consider the political intrigue that has gone into creating and maintaining these private clubs, the cost that this has added to every aspect of economic activity and the fundamental injustice of «insiders» denying membership to others with the same skills. When the medical profession accepts graduates of foreign universities as equals, how is it that engineers refuse the same right to colleagues from other EU countries? Why is the primary qualification for truck drivers and cabbies their ability to buy exorbitantly expensive licenses rather than their professional expertise? If people are given the right to ban competition in their field of work, if they have to earn back the small fortune that they paid for their license, is this not certain to lead to poor service at high prices? Even if we water down the figures presented by analysts, such as those of the Foundation for Economic and Industrial Research (IOBE), which suggest that opening up the closed shops will spur private consumption by 15.5 percent and raise gross domestic product by 13.5 percent in the long term, there can be no excuses for holding back any change that will contribute even the slightest toward improving our economy. There can be no excuses for further delays in opening up the closed professions. For this to be achieved, though, the people who have been sheltered in such a way cannot be expected to simply accept such radical change to how they work and to their incomes. They have to be eased into the new situation, so that they will accept the change and not disturb the rest of society at a time when everyone is trying to hold his or her head above water. If they have paid a lot of money, they should be given a share in the new dispensation. Strangely enough, selfish behavior (whether by groups or individuals) has been tolerated for many years as a manifestation of freedom, as if liberty is no more than license. When any group with a grievance is allowed to block city streets or highways at will; when self-proclaimed anarchists can take over parts of Athens and Thessaloniki whenever the spirit moves them; when each special interest group is able to exert as much pressure as it can on the rest of society for its own benefit, then it is perfectly natural that professional groups should believe that their privileges should be paid for by everyone else. Like every other distortion that has cost Greek society and the economy so dearly, the issue here is one of justice. When the Constitution decrees that all citizens of this country are equal, when everyone claims to be a devoted slave of the Constitution, is it not the ultimate absurdity to fight tooth and nail to preserve inequality and injustice?