Occupational Licensing Run Amok

occupational licensing


By Troy Camplin – LibertyChat.com Contributor –

You know that when the New York Times runs an op-ed against occupational licensing, the practice has truly gotten out of control.

Of course, the typical libertarian will argue against any kind of government licensing. But the average non-libertarian is not going to be persuaded that we should not license, say, medical doctors. However, libertarians could make a great deal of headway by arguing, as this op-ed does, that licensing florists is more than a bit ridiculous.

The licensing of florists, hair dressers, and manicurists lay bare exactly what occupational licensing is for: to protect already-established practitioners from competition and, therefore, drive up prices. So long as they were only licensing doctors and therapists, governments could pretend that it was all about protecting the consumer. But when it extends to florists, the cronyism and protectionism becomes all too apparent.

Or consider another realm of licensing: teachers. The op-ed brings up the absurdity of having different licensing requirements from state to state, meaning if a teacher moves from, say, Texas to New York, that teacher will have to get recertified. But consider something equally as absurd: with my Ph.D. in the humanities and M.A. in English, I can teach university English, but I cannot teach high school English unless I become certified. In other words, I am qualified to teach English to an 18 yr old in Freshman English, but not to an 18 yr old in high school. This is absurd on the face of it.

The reason someone with a Ph.D. cannot teach high school classes in their field is because teachers’ unions have successfully lobbied to protect teachers who only have a B.A. from competition against far more qualified, far more knowledgeable people. In this particular case, it is clear that it is the employees who are being protected from competition by more qualified people. This does not protect the “consumer,” if we view high school students that way, but quite obviously harms them.

Of course, many of these examples I have mentioned are easy to argue. And many non-libertarians will agree that we ought to get rid of these particular forms of licensing. But what is the libertarian to do in the face of the hard cases?

The typical libertarian will first suggest that people aren’t so stupid that they would go to an unqualified doctor. However, the history of medicine strongly suggests otherwise. Does this mean government licensure is a good thing, that we need it to protect people from themselves?

Hardly. The lack of government licensing doesn’t mean that there will be a complete lack of licensing. The fact of the matter is that most people are rationally ignorant; they want and need licensing so that they can know, without doing a ton of research on their own, who to trust. They don’t need such information for a florist – they can look in the window, see the displays, and decide if that person knows what they are doing or not – but they do need that kind of information about a doctor. Private licensing companies could and would provide that service absent government licensing precisely because people want to know who to trust, and businesses want to signal to people that they are trustworthy.

The fact that the New York Times is running an op-ed questioning occupational licensing is a good sign. We libertarians need to seize this opportunity to persuade more people that this protectionist, job-killing practice has to go.

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