Two things that are near and dear to the hearts of libertarians are the removal of government occupational licensing and the elimination of government involvement in education. Recent events concerning these issues are good examples of steps toward freedom and steps away from it.
An occupational license is simply a certificate of permission and approval from a government-sponsored board that a jobseeker is required to obtain before he can begin working in a certain occupation. These licenses are most commonly issued by state governments.
And it’s not just professionals — like lawyers and accountants — and health care providers —like physicians, dentists, nurses, and emergency medical technicians — that must obtain a government license to work. Depending on the state, barbers, auctioneers, child-care workers, animal breeders, manicurists, interior designers, upholsterers, hair shampooers, bill collectors, fire-alarm installers, make-up artists, crane operators, fishermen, security guards, security-alarm installers, coaches, taxidermists, locksmiths, bartenders, taxi drivers, pest-control technicians, funeral attendants, and travel agents might have to be licensed as well.
Proponents of occupational licensing want us to believe that without government licensing, businesses would be full of untrained, incompetent, uneducated, unqualified, unscrupulous workers who would endanger customers or provide them with shoddy service.
In my state of Florida, the legislature recently passed a bill (HB 735) that rolls back state occupational licensing requirements. The vote in the House was 82-32. The vote in the Senate was 22-18. The main part of the legislation reads:
A person whose job scope does not substantially correspond to either the job scope of one of the contractor categories defined in s. 489.105(3)(a)-(o), or the job scope of one of the certified specialty contractor categories established by board rule, is not required to register with the board.
For purposes of this section, job scopes for which a local government may not require a license include, but are not limited to, painting; flooring; cabinetry; interior remodeling; driveway or tennis court installation; handyman services; decorative stone, tile, marble, granite, or terrazzo installation; plastering; stuccoing; caulking; and canvas awning and ornamental iron installation.
The legislation takes effect on July 1, 2021.
Counties and municipalities are still authorized to issue journeyman licenses in the trades of electrical, alarm systems, plumbing, pipe fitting, mechanical, and HVAC. Workers in these industries who hold “a valid, active journeyman license” in one county or municipality may work in another “without taking an additional examination or paying an additional license fee” if they:
- Score at least 75 percent on an exam,
- Complete an apprenticeship program or have six years experience,
- Complete specialized and advanced module coursework, and
- Have not had a license suspended or revoked within the last 5 years.
Thus, the legislation is not perfect, but it is a step in the right direction. The elimination of any licensing requirement for any occupation is always a good thing. The elimination of license requirements for even one occupation is one step closer to occupational freedom.
Government involvement in education takes many forms. The federal government and all of the states have departments of education that regulate and fund education.
In addition, on the federal level, there are bilingual-education mandates, math and science initiatives, Title IX mandates, Pell Grants, student loans, school accreditation, anti-discrimination policies, desegregation orders, school breakfast and lunch programs, and special-education mandates. The states operate K-12 schools, colleges, and universities; have teacher certification requirements; mandatory attendance laws; and standardized-testing requirements. They also regulate private schools in various degrees, and some have voucher programs that pay tuition at private schools.
Proponents of government involvement in education believe that education is a special service that cannot be provided on the free market. They believe that providing and funding education is the proper role of government. They believe that some Americans should pay to educate the children of other Americans.
In West Virginia, Gov. Jim Justice recently signed the Hope Scholarship bill that creates a universal education savings account (or ESA) program that allows parents to use their share of state education funds for approved non-public educational expenses such as private-school tuition and home-schooling materials.
School-choice advocates have scored big victories around the country. Indiana enlarged its voucher program. Montana lifted caps on charter schools. Arkansas now offers tax-credit scholarships to low-income students. West Virginia and Kentucky have funded savings accounts that help parents pay tuition at private schools. Florida, a movement leader, has enlarged its tax-credit scholarship programs. Even Rhode Island Gov. Dan McKee promises to veto a moratorium on new charter schools.
The primary way that “school choice” is given to parents is via education vouchers. These subsidies, however, don’t go to all parents. Instead, they are reserved for low-income parents who cannot afford the tuition at private schools. These vouchers allow children from low-income families to go to private schools of their parents’ choice at taxpayer expense. Tuition payments are generally paid from the government directly to the schools.
In the early days of the “school choice” movement, conservatives and libertarians justified their support of vouchers by saying that it was a “gradual” way to achieve the goal of educational freedom. Vouchers were the first step in the direction of more freedom. This is rarely mentioned anymore. What we hear now from voucher proponents is how vouchers will improve educational outcomes through “choice” and “competition.” The conservatives have made their peace with the federal Department of Education and completely accepted the idea that government at some level should provide education. The libertarians have completely accepted the idea that government at some level should fund education. Some of them still cling to the idea that the expansion of “school choice” will ultimately lead to more educational freedom.
There is no doubt that education vouchers that allow a poor child to get out of a failing and dangerous public school and enroll in a private school will improve his education and scores on standardized tests. But that is not the issue. Although these vouchers may give parents more freedom, they are not a step toward educational freedom. Government education vouchers (there is certainly nothing wrong with private vouchers) give some Americans the choice of where to spend other Americans’ money to educate their children. They don’t lower overall government spending on education. They lead to increased government regulation of private schools. They make private schools accountable to government instead of parents. And they distort the marketplace by establishing a floor below which tuition will not go because they remove incentives for schools to compete on cost. Vouchers are not, and have never been, a step toward educational freedom. They are rather a step away from it.
Libertarians seek a free society where the providers of goods and services don’t have to be licensed by some government entity and education is completely separated from government at all levels. The removal of government licensing from even one occupation is a step toward freedom. The issuing of government education vouchers to even one child is a step away from it.