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Reason Foundation

The Right to Work

How occupational licensing laws restrict liberty

John Stossel
March 11, 2010

The people of Louisiana must sleep soundly knowing that their state protects them from ... unlicensed florists.

That's right. In Louisiana, you can't sell flower arrangements unless you have permission from the government. How do you get permission? You must pass a test that is graded by a board of florists who already have licenses. To prepare for the test, you might have to spend $2,000 on a special course.

The test requires knowledge of techniques that florists rarely use anymore. One question asks the name of the state's agriculture commissioner—as though you can't be a good florist without knowing that piece of vital information.

The licensing board defends its test, claiming it protects consumers from florists who might sell them unhealthy flowers. I understand the established florists' wish to protect their profession's reputation, but in practice such licensing laws mainly serve to limit competition. Making it harder for newcomers to open florist shops lets established florists hog the business.

Other states are considering adopting Louisiana's licensing law, but before any do, I hope that the law will be stricken. The Institute for Justice, a public-interest law firm, has challenged the licensing in court, saying it violates liberty and equal protection, and so is unconstitutional.

"One of the most fundamental tenets of the American dream is the right to earn an honest living without arbitrary government interference. What could be more arbitrary than saying who can and who cannot sell flowers?" IJ President Chip Mellor says.

Others states have their own sets of ridiculous licensing rules. In Virginia, you need a license to be a yoga instructor. Florida threatened an interior designer with a $25,000 fine if she didn't do a six-year apprenticeship and pass a test, at a cost of several thousand dollars. Fortunately, the Institute for Justice got that law overturned.

I'm rooting for IJ because licensing interferes with the freedom to make a living, harms consumers by limiting competition, and protects established firms. It's an old story. Established businesses have always used government to handcuff competition. Years ago, small grocers tried to ban supermarkets. A&P was going to "destroy Main Street," the grocers cried. Minnesota legislators responded to their lobbying by passing a law that forbade supermarkets to hold sales. Consumers were hurt.

OK, while licensing of florists, interior designers, and yoga teachers is ridiculous, what about more important professions, like law? Surely people need protection from people who would practice law without a license. Again, I say no. Lawyers' monopoly on helping people with wills, bankruptcies, and divorces is just another expensive restraint of trade.

David Price recently spent six months in a Kansas jail because he wrote a letter on behalf of a man who was wrongly accused of practicing architecture without a license. When Price refused to promise never to "practice law" again, a judge sent him to jail.

All he did was write a letter. Price didn't misrepresent his credentials. However, he did save a man from paying $3,000 to a lawyer. Perhaps that was his real offense.

Some of the most famous lawyers in American history, including Thomas Jefferson, Abraham Lincoln, and Supreme Court Justice Benjamin Cardozo, had no license from the state. Their customers decided whether they were worthy of being hired.

Competition is better than government at protecting consumers from shoddy work. Furthermore, licensing creates a false sense of security. Consider this: When you move to a new community, do you ask neighbors or colleagues to recommend doctors, dentists, and mechanics even though those jobs are licensed? Of course. Because you know that even with licensing laws, there is a wide range of quality and outright quackery in every occupation. You know that licensing doesn't really protect you.

A free competitive market for reputation protects consumers much more effectively than government can. Today, online services like Angie's List (www.angieslist.com) make it even easier for consumers to get better information about businesses than government licensing boards will ever provide. We do need protection from shoddy businesses. But it's freedom and competition that produce the best protection.

John Stossel is host of Stossel on the Fox Business Network. He's the author of Give Me a Break and of Myth, Lies, and Downright Stupidity. To find out more about John Stossel, visit his site at johnstossel.com. This column first appeared at Reason.com.

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