Tuesday, February 7, 2012

Freedom to get licensed?

Those of us on the right, of a conservative or libertarian bent, worry about the encroachments on our freedom by the Federal Government. Many worry about it incessantly. And in that regard, we look to the idea of States' rights as a means to curtail those encroachments. But what about the State governments? Though legislative action in this arena is subject to more possible scrutiny (even of it is often ignored), the bureaucracies of the States themselves are capable of having a significant impact on the extent of liberty.

Consider the most fundamental aspect of liberty: the freedom to choose out own paths in life. Necessarily, that implies a freedom of industry--not in the large-scale sense, but in the personal sense--insofar as people can pursue those trades and occupations that they desire to pursue. Their success or failure in that regard is not a foregone conclusion, but instead depends on effort, skill, and a host of other factors. That is the source of the much-touted entrepreneurial spirit in America.

But is this spirit being stifled at a State level, moreso than at a federal level? Consider this:
In the 1950s, when organisation man ruled, fewer than 5% of American workers needed licences. Today, after three decades of deregulation, the figure is almost 30%. Add to that people who are preparing to obtain a licence or whose jobs involve some form of certification and the share is 38%.
This article from the Economist appeared nearly a year ago, but scant attention has been paid. It follows the work of economist Morris Kleiner, one of the few people tracking the growth of licensing requirements. This article from the Wall Street Journal--now also a year old--provides provides more details, along with a graph showing the above-mentioned growth:

Understand what this means: one in four Americans must--in order to pursue their chosen professions--obtain a license from the State allowing them to work. Of course, there is some sense in such requirments, particularly when there are safety issues. Doctors and other health care professionals do need to know what they're doing and people need to have some level of trust in that regard. Contractors fit that bill as well, given that buildings and bridges need to be safe for habitation and use.

But such legitimate licensing can hardly account for these numbers. As the Economist and WSJ articles note, there are many licensed occupations that make little sense, like cat groomers, tattoo artists, tree trimmers, barbers, wig-makers, manicurists, interior decorators, coffin-makers, florists, handymen, wrestlers, tour guides, frozen-dessert sellers, firework operatives, second-hand booksellers, and shampoo specialists.

Such licensing does two--three, actually--things: limits the ability of people to enter a given field (often, there are steep monetary costs to get the licensing, along with required classes) and raises money for State coffers (not a lot of money by occupation, but a fair amount overall). The third thing? Raises the cost to the consumer by effectively limiting choice.

If you fancy yourself a conservative or a libertarian, consider all of this for a moment. Set aside your ire for the policies being enacted in Washington, D.C. and ask yourself: does this sound right? As the Economist article notes, the United States is out in front on this issue. In England, for instance, only 13% of workers need licenses.

And the Economist notes the attempt to curb this licensing frenzy in Florida last year. The bill would have done the following:
Deletes provisions establishing Florida Board of Auctioneers & Motor Vehicle Repair Advisory Council, deletes provisions for regulation of yacht & ship brokers, auctioneers, talent agencies, athlete agents, persons practicing hair braiding, hair wrapping, or body wrapping, interior designers, professional fundraising consultants & solicitors, water vending machines & operators, health studios, ballroom dance studios, commercial telephone sellers & salespersons, movers & moving brokers, certain outdoor theaters, certain business opportunities, motor vehicle repair shops, sellers of travel, contracts with sales representatives involving commissions, & television picture tubes; revises name & membership of Board of Architecture; revises license classifications of public lodging establishments.
And it failed to pass, in Florida, a place with heavy Tea Party influences. What hope for the future? Whomever is in power in DC is inconsequential here. State legislatures--controlled by either part--are unwilling to scale back on this requirements and--as is clear from the graph--only too happy to create more.

This is how liberty is lost: by slow machinations, often unnoticed by the majority, usually ignored by the same.

Cheers, all.


  1. You missed the fourth thing such legislation does, although you touched on in peripherally in the first and third reasons you listed. By limiting the ability of people to enter a given field, it provides protection for current practitioners from upstart competitors who may dilute the market or offer price competition.

    Stories abound of legislation written by "professional associations" sold to the public as protection for the consumer, when it was really the established community being protected from competition. "Grandfather clauses" are a sure-fire way to detect such legislation.

    Don't slight the lobbyists; they pay good money to get such legislation on the books. Credit where credit's due.

    And to show we're all imperfect, I guess raising funds for legislators' re-election campaigns should be listed as the fifth impact -- so our counts were both wrong.

  2. Well, those reasons all strike me as subsets of the ones I gave. So I'm still perfect. ;)