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The Guilding of the American Workforce


The American economy is degenerating into a guild system, as government doles out privileges to one group of self-proclaimed professionals after another. State licensing prohibits millions of Americans from practicing the occupation of their choice.

Over eight hundred professions now require a government license to practice-from barbers to phrenologists to tattoo artists. What counts more than anything these days is whether people have pieces of paper signed by government officials.

Licensing laws are almost always lobbied for by professional associations that want to exclude competitors who might lower prices. While the public is suffering from an epidemic of violent crime, state governments are doing things like protecting people from unlicensed interior designers. Texas requires designers to have six years of school and experience and pass a two-day state exam. Naturally, the law grandfathered in most practicing designers.

Dentists have perennially used licensing laws to drill consumers. Economist Lawrence Shepard of the University of California at Davis estimates that unjustified state government restrictions on dental licensing add between 12 and 15 percent to the cost of dental care. The Federal Trade Commission estimated that unjustified restrictions on dental service cost consumers $700 million a year.

Licensing restrictions are justified by appeals to the government’s duty to protect the public from, say, quack doctors. Curiously, however, while state governments restrict entry into the medical profession, they also prohibit the public from seeing the performance records of doctors. When the Public Citizen Health Research Group, a Washington activist organization, sought to compile a nationwide list of doctors who had been disciplined by state medical boards, eighteen states refused to reveal the names.

Though licensing boards routinely make it difficult for people to enter a profession, they are paragons of tolerance once a person is admitted. Even when state medical boards have proof that doctors have committed violent crimes, they routinely do not revoke the convicted felons’ medical licenses.

A Washington Post investigation revealed that the state of Maryland allowed over thirty-five doctors to retain their licenses despite criminal convictions for sex crimes, drug violations, theft, and fraud. One Baltimore physician “was convicted of raping a gynecological patient in his office but allowed by the commission to continue practicing medicine.”

The Maryland commission even allowed two dozen physicians that it explicitly ruled incompetent to continue practicing medicine. The New York Bureau of Professional Misconduct allowed a New Jersey anesthesiologist to continue practicing medicine in New York after he had been convicted by a jury in 1992 of raping a patient in New Jersey; the anesthesiologist returned the board’s favor by getting arrested in May 1993 for sexually abusing a female patient in New York.

Teacher-licensing requirements harm the American public and millions of would-be teachers. Most states require teachers to be graduates of education colleges-which is usually the equivalent of requiring a person to run a four-year mental gauntlet of dreary, often pointless courses. It takes little intellectual effort or ability to slosh through the average teachers college; education majors at universities routinely have among the lowest SAT scores.

While teachers are frequently derided for their faltering literacy, potentially good teachers are banned from teaching because they don’t have degrees in education. Teacher-licensing restrictions create an artificial shortage of good teachers, resulting in higher salaries for less motivated and often less capable teachers.

Licensing restrictions are one of the most pervasive and least recognized triumphs of paternalism in the average American’s everyday life. No matter how many hacks the boards unleash on the public-or how often the boards resist punishing the incompetent-licensing boards have somehow maintained their sheen of respectability.

Although licensing barriers are erected on the doctrine of consumer incompetence and government omniscience, there is no reason to presume that bureaucrats can judge the qualifications of professionals better than consumers can. Private boards could issue credentials to qualifying professionals to help the lay public make decisions beyond its expertise.

A worker’s right to choose his own profession was once recognized as a hallmark of American liberty. Restrictions on freedom of enterprise amount to a political expropriation of opportunity.

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    James Bovard is a policy adviser to The Future of Freedom Foundation. He is a USA Today columnist and has written for The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, The Washington Post, New Republic, Reader’s Digest, Playboy, American Spectator, Investors Business Daily, and many other publications. He is the author of Public Policy Hooligan (2012); Attention Deficit Democracy (2006); The Bush Betrayal (2004); Terrorism and Tyranny (2003); Feeling Your Pain (2000); Freedom in Chains (1999); Shakedown (1995); Lost Rights (1994); The Fair Trade Fraud (1991); and The Farm Fiasco (1989). He was the 1995 co-recipient of the Thomas Szasz Award for Civil Liberties work, awarded by the Center for Independent Thought, and the recipient of the 1996 Freedom Fund Award from the Firearms Civil Rights Defense Fund of the National Rifle Association. His book Lost Rights received the Mencken Award as Book of the Year from the Free Press Association. His Terrorism and Tyranny won Laissez Faire Book’s Lysander Spooner award for the Best Book on Liberty in 2003. Read his blog. Send him email.