Back in 2007, I wrote a short piece for the Mackinac Center that showed, through a hypothetical story, how occupational licensing laws come about. It was published in a few local newspapers, and elicited its fair share of responses – primarily because shortly after I wrote it interior designers, who I chose for my example, began lobbying for exactly the kind of thing I discussed. Good timing I guess.
I responded to several angry emails, and I recently rediscovered one of my responses. I probably would say a few things differently today, but I still thought it was a fun exchange and I was reminded of it after discussing a current effort afoot in Minnesota to require interior designers to be licensed. The idea is as stupid now as it was then, no matter what state it’s in.
Below is the original article, followed by the response letter and my reply. The names have been changed to protect the
Article originally posted here.
Michigan ranks sixth in the nation when it comes to occupational licensing, with 116 different occupations requiring state approval, according to a recent Reason Foundation report.
Michigan even has a license for reptile catchers. You’d think with only one native venomous snake, the Massasauga Rattlesnake — and a relatively benign one at that — we might not need to rank so highly in this area of policy. Apparently not.
So, why do we have all of these licenses? Who comes up with them? Here’s a hypothetical example of how such policies come about:
A lawmaker meets with lobbyists representing an association of interior designers. The lobbyists say interior designers contribute $10 million annually to the state economy and provide more than 10,000 good paying jobs. Interior designers work hard to have a good reputation, say the lobbyists, but all of that is in danger. Rogue designers who are not members of the association have been undercutting prices and providing shoddy workmanship that damages all designers’ reputations. The lobbyists tell of one such designer who made a cheap shelving unit that collapsed, injuring the customer.
To remedy this, the association proposes requiring all interior designers to be registered with the state. They propose a course of study (provided by the association, to members only) and a test administered by a state panel of design experts (largely representatives of the association). Applicants must pay a $500 fee to cover the cost of the course, the test, the panel and all other related activities. Fee money would also be used to investigate and prosecute any unlicensed designers — including levying a $500 fine for first time offenders and $1,000 for repeats.
The lawmaker likes the idea of “protecting” his constituents and introduces a package of bills, mostly drafted by design association lawyers. The legislation passes the Legislature and is signed by the governor with little fanfare, as the association lines up members to testify in favor of it and the media reprints their supportive statements on this “consumer protection” package.
That’s the side of the story that is easy for everyone to see. Here’s another side:
Jane Citizen works 40-plus hours per week to sustain her family, and because of her interest in it, started her own interior design business. She has no formal training in design, and neither time nor money to pay for it. Her customers are happy, and her business has been steadily growing by word-of-mouth. Jane has never been a member of any design associations and doesn’t have time to attend conferences or read their publications, nor does she have extra cash to pay their dues.
The new “consumer protection” act goes into effect without Jane’s knowledge. She is soon approached on the job by a bureaucrat asking to see her registration. He informs her that she is violating the law and must pay a $500 fine and cease plying her trade immediately. She must become registered or face additional fines and/or legal action. Jane doesn’t have the extra $500, nor does she have the time to take the state-required course or the money to pay for it. She has unknowingly violated the law and must cease earning her living.
Lawmakers received short-lived but positive press for “protecting consumers.” But who was protected? Jane and those depending on her income were not protected by the new law. Her happy customers who lost her skills and competitive prices were not protected. The design association was the only party protected. They eliminated competitors who drove down prices. They protected their monopoly and damaged the marketplace.
Under such a law Jane and her willing customers are “protected” from an honest and mutually satisfactory transaction. Free exchange ceases to be a natural right protected by government; instead it becomes a privilege bestowed by government. No longer can market competition ensure the best services at the best price; instead a trade monopoly, using the force of government, ensures the highest price for their service. No longer do free people choose what constitutes a fair price, a fair wage and good design; instead a government panel decides for them.
The next time you hear about “consumer protection” legislation that requires yet more licensing, check to see who it really protects. When government uses force to create and protect industry monopolies for “public safety,” it subverts our natural rights. That’s more dangerous than a room full of collapsing shelves.
Dear Mr. Morehouse,
I am writing in reference to your Thursday, December 13, 2007 article “Consumer protection often isn’t”. It seems to me you have on [sic] idea what a [sic] educated Interior Designer has to learn before they should be able to call themselves a professional. I have a Bachelor of Science Degree from Michigan State University and almost a second degree in Art History. All of these I paid for myself working two or three jobs while taking a full load of course. I have no sympathy for your Jane Citizen!
There are university extension classes and night sessions available. She obviously wants a free ride. Thank God she didn’t want to be a BRAIN SURGEON!!!! I believe you should visit two or three of the fifteen colleges or universities in our state with Interior Design programs before you ridicule a profession. May I suggest M.S.U., Wayne State, Eastern Michigan or Kendall. All have excellent programs. If the educational aspects of a profession do not concern you why haven’t you gone after Attorneys, Architects, Doctors, Plumbers, Etc? They are all licensees.
All Interior Designers want is the recognition of time spent getting the proper credentials for practicing their profession so they can serve their clients properly thus protecting their safety and welfare.
Dear Mr. Doe,
Thank you for your comments on my article. It seems, however, that you have misunderstood its very simple point. I made no attempt to single out any one profession in occupational licensing (I could’ve used anything as an example), nor was I attempting to besmirch the hard work and training many interior designers go through.
I have no doubt that you have worked hard, and are very talented at your profession as a result; and I have absolutely no problem with occupational licensing or certification that is voluntary. What my article warned against is licensure by force. Whenever the state acts, it backs up its laws with force.
I do not believe anyone should be forced or threatened with the use of force for choosing to not get a certain amount of training in a profession. If Jane citizen wants to offer her services, that is her business. Consumers should be free to hire whomever they choose. I have no doubt that voluntary certifications would (and do in some professions) abound, and many consumers would choose only to hire those with a consumer report stamp of approval (for example). However, the choice should be up to the individual, not for the state to impose upon individuals by force.
All state-forced occupational licensing is in effect a barrier to entry for entry-level workers and a protection for well-entrenched industry lobbies. I have no doubt that your design skills can stand on their own in a free-market, and I do not believe you need the blunt force of government to coerce customers into hiring you over a less qualified competitor. I wish you had as much confidence.
Isaac M. Morehouse