Occupational regulation is the scourge of the unemployed as well as the consumer. Even the Economist doesn’t like it (Economist May 14). It’s increase shows the vulnerability of democracy to rent seeking.
IN 1941 Franklin Roosevelt added two new items to America’s ancestral freedoms of speech and worship: freedom from fear and freedom from want. Today’s politicians offer a far more generous menu: freedom from unlicensed hair-cutters, freedom from cowboy flower-arrangers and, most important of all, freedom from rogue interior designers. What is the point of enjoying freedom from fear or want, after all, if you cannot enjoy freedom from poorly co-ordinated colour schemes?
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%. Other rich countries impose far fewer fetters than the land of the free. In Britain only 13% of workers need licences (though that has doubled in 12 years).
Some occupations clearly need to be licensed. Nobody wants to unleash amateur doctors and dentists on the public, or untrained tattoo artists for that matter. But, as the Wall Street Journal has doggedly pointed out, America’s Licence Raj has extended its tentacles into occupations that pose no plausible threat to health or safety—occupations, moreover, that are governed by considerations of taste rather than anything that can be objectively measured by licensing authorities. The list of jobs that require licences in some states already sounds like something from Monty Python—florists, handymen, wrestlers, tour guides, frozen-dessert sellers, firework operatives, second-hand booksellers and, of course, interior designers—but it will become sillier still if ambitious cat-groomers and dog-walkers get their way.
Getting a licence can be time-consuming. Want to become a barber in California? That will require studying the art of cutting and blow-drying for almost a year. Want to work in the wig trade in Texas? You will need to take 300 hours of classes and pass both written and practical exams. Alabama obliges manicurists to sit through 750 hours of instruction before taking a practical exam. Florida will not let you work as an interior designer unless you complete a four-year university degree and a two-year apprenticeship and pass a two-day examination.
America’s Licence Raj crushes would-be entrepreneurs. Consider three people who come from very different states and occupations. Jestina Clayton is an African hair-braider with 23 years of experience. But the Utah Barber, Cosmetologist/Barber, Esthetician, Electrologist and Nail Technician Licensing Board told her that she cannot practise her craft unless she first obtains a licence—which means spending up to $18,000 on 2,000 hours of study, none of it devoted to African hair-braiding.
Justin Brown is an abbot at a Benedictine abbey that supplements its meagre income by making and selling simple wooden coffins. But the Louisiana Board of Embalmers and Funeral Directors has ordered him to “cease and desist”. Heaven knows what harm a corpse might suffer from an unlicensed coffin. Barbara Vanderkolk Gardner runs a flourishing interior-design business in New Jersey. But when she tried to expand into Florida, the state’s Board of Architecture and Interior Design ordered her to delete all references to “interior design” from her website and stop offering “interior design services” in the Sunshine State.
The cost of all this pettifoggery is huge—unless, that is, you are a member of one of the cartels that pushes for pettifogging rules or an employee of one of the bureaucratic bodies charged with enforcing them. Morris Kleiner of the University of Minnesota calculates that licensing boosts the income of licensees by about 15%. In other words, it has about the same impact on wages as membership of a trade union does. (Trade unionists who are also protected by licences enjoy a 24% boost to their hourly wages.) Mr Kleiner also argues that licensing slows job-creation: by comparing occupations that are regulated in some states but not in others he found that job growth between 1990 and 2000 was 20% higher in unregulated occupations than in regulated ones.
The Institute for Justice, a free-market pressure group, argues that this is only the beginning of the Raj’s sins. The patchwork of regulations makes it hard for people to move from state to state. The burden of regulations falls most heavily on ethnic minorities (who are less likely to have educational qualifications) and on women (who might want to return to work after raising their children). States that demand that funeral directors must also qualify as embalmers, for example, have 24% fewer female funeral directors than those that don’t.
You might imagine that Americans would be up in arms about all this. After all, the Licence Raj embodies the two things that Americans are supposed to be furious about: the rise of big government and the stalling of America’s job-creating machine. You would be wrong. Florida’s legislature recently debated a bill to remove licensing requirements from 20 occupations, including hair-braiding, interior design and teaching ballroom-dancing. For a while it looked as if the bill would sail through: Florida has been a centre of tea-party agitation and both chambers have Republican majorities. But the people who care most about this issue—the cartels of incumbents—lobbied the loudest. One predicted that unlicensed designers would use fabrics that might spread disease and cause 88,000 deaths a year. Another suggested, even more alarmingly, that clashing colour schemes might adversely affect “salivation”. In the early hours of May 7th the bill was defeated. If Republican majorities cannot pluck up the courage to challenge a cartel of interior designers when Florida’s unemployment rate is more than 10%, what hope has America? The Licence Raj may be here to stay.