Protection rackets, cartels, and compulsory industry bodies

So, the Real Estate Industry of New Zealand has censured a member for advertising it’s services by citing the general level of service in the industry, which it claims has customers paying “too much” for not good enough service. Sounds like a competitive claim to me.

But not to the Real Estate Institute of New Zealand (REINZ). REINZ was set up under the auspices of the Real Estate Institute of New Zealand Act 1976, and all licensed real estate agents are required to belong to it and abide by its rules.

The REINZ is one of a class of industry bodies that has been given government recognition. In many other industries, there is no government recognition/compulsion, yet the motivation for setting up the bodies is largely the same. These industries usually have some kind of bar to entry, but it is not one that is strictly prohibitive – for instance a professional qualification may be needed (eg estate agents license, admittance to the bar to practise law). Ostensibly, the bodies regulate the behaviour of members, who ordinary people cannot fully understand or regulate themselves because of the informational difficulties (cannot tell them apart, do not understand things like lawyer-client privelige or are in a compromised position (you are at the mercy of your lawyer in the middle of a trial) etc). It is argued that it is more efficient for the body to regulate, as it is cheaper than legislation, more adaptive to community needs etc.

Sometimes, the industry bodies are formed by members to prevent government regulation – leading members set the bodies up and claim to be preventing poor conduct on behalf of the industry, to stop the government doing so, presumably because they believe that the rules will be less onerous if they write them themselves.

Where this happens and a kind of defacto-power is given to these bodies (or actual power in the case of the REINZ), problems emerge. Often hurdles to competition and industry entry are set up under the semblance of increasing standards – higher qualifications required, minimum practise times, a majority of members need to approve their power to practise. In the end, without actual and real government oversight it is almost innevitable that these bodies move to become quasi-cartels that aim to protect their members under the guise of protecting the helpless consumer. So it is that the REINZ has censured a member for seemingly only competing.

Which brings us to the question of what good it is having them. If without government oversight these bodies invariably abuse their position, why have them and not simply have the government set the rules? I personally find this compelling as an alternative to compulsory industry governed bodies. However voluntary bodies should not necessarily be treated the same, particularly where those who are non-members can be recognised by the public and accordingly treated with due care. If these ‘rebels’ prove reliable enough, there is no reason why they can’t establish their own reputation for protecting consumers etc, and set up their own bodies with their own rules in competition with the established one. If sufficient information is out there for competition to emerge, the two watch dogs will compete on keeping their members in line. The key here is that there is an ability to compete rather than a defacto cartel. On the other hand, cartels running themselves clothed as consumer interested altruistic organisations are no good, and have no place in the New Zealand economy.