Occupational Licensing, Competition, and the Constitution: Prospects for Reform?

Alden Abbott —  18 July 2014

U.S. antitrust law focuses primarily on private anticompetitive restraints, leaving the most serious impediments to a vibrant competitive process – government-initiated restraints – relatively free to flourish.  Thus the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) should be commended for its July 16 congressional testimony that spotlights a fast-growing and particularly pernicious species of (largely state) government restriction on competition – occupational licensing requirements.  Today such disciplines (to name just a few) as cat groomers, flower arrangers, music therapists, tree trimmers, frozen dessert retailers, eyebrow threaders, massage therapists (human and equine), and “shampoo specialists,” in addition to the traditional categories of doctors, lawyers, and accountants, are subject to professional licensure.  Indeed, since the 1950s, the coverage of such rules has risen dramatically, as the percentage of Americans requiring government authorization to do their jobs has risen from less than five percent to roughly 30 percent.

Even though some degree of licensing responds to legitimate health and safety concerns (i.e., no fly-by-night heart surgeons), much occupational regulation creates unnecessary barriers to entry into a host of jobs.  Excessive licensing confers unwarranted benefits on fortunate incumbents, while effectively barring large numbers of capable individuals from the workforce.  (For example, many individuals skilled in natural hair braiding simply cannot afford the 2,100 hours required to obtain a license in Iowa, Nebraska, and South Dakota.)  It also imposes additional economic harms, as the FTC’s testimony explains:  “[Occupational licensure] regulations may lead to higher prices, lower quality services and products, and less convenience for consumers.  In the long term, they can cause lasting damage to competition and the competitive process by rendering markets less responsive to consumer demand and by dampening incentives for innovation in products, services, and business models.”  Licensing requirements are often enacted in tandem with other occupational regulations that unjustifiably limit the scope of beneficial services particular professionals can supply – for instance, a ban on tooth cleaning by dental hygienists not acting under a dentist’s supervision that boosts dentists’ income but denies treatment to poor children who have no access to dentists.

What legal and policy tools are available to chip away at these pernicious and costly laws and regulations, which largely are the fruit of successful special interest lobbying?  The FTC’s competition advocacy program, which responds to requests from legislators and regulators to assess the economic merits of proposed laws and regulations, has focused on unwarranted regulatory restrictions in such licensed professions as real estate brokers, electricians, accountants, lawyers, dentists, dental hygienists, nurses, eye doctors, opticians, and veterinarians.  Retrospective reviews of FTC advocacy efforts suggest it may have helped achieve some notable reforms (for example, 74% of requestors, regulators, and bill sponsors surveyed responded that FTC advocacy initiatives influenced outcomes).  Nevertheless, advocacy’s reach and effectiveness inherently are limited by FTC resource constraints, by the need to obtain “invitations” to submit comments, and by the incentive and ability of licensing scheme beneficiaries to oppose regulatory and legislative reforms.

Former FTC Chairman Kovacic and James Cooper (currently at George Mason University’s Law and Economics Center) have suggested that federal and state antitrust experts could be authorized to have ex ante input into regulatory policy making.  As the authors recognize, however, several factors sharply limit the effectiveness of such an initiative.  In particular, “the political feasibility of this approach at the legislative level is slight”, federal mandates requiring ex ante reviews would raise serious federalism concerns, and resource constraints would loom large.

Antitrust law challenges to anticompetitive licensing schemes likewise offer little solace.  They are limited by the antitrust “state action” doctrine, which shields conduct undertaken pursuant to “clearly articulated” state legislative language that displaces competition – a category that generally will cover anticompetitive licensing requirements.  Even a Supreme Court decision next term (in North Carolina Dental v. FTC) that state regulatory boards dominated by self-interested market participants must be actively supervised to enjoy state action immunity would have relatively little bite.  It would not limit states from issuing simple statutory commands that create unwarranted occupational barriers, nor would it prevent states from implementing “adequate” supervisory schemes that are designed to approve anticompetitive state board rules.

What then is to be done?

Constitutional challenges to unjustifiable licensing strictures may offer the best long-term solution to curbing this regulatory epidemic.  As Clark Neily points out in Terms of Engagement, there is a venerable constitutional tradition of protecting the liberty interest to earn a living, reflected in well-reasoned late 19th and early 20th century “Lochner-era” Supreme Court opinions.  Even if Lochner is not rehabilitated, however, there are a few recent jurisprudential “straws in the wind” that support efforts to rein in “irrational” occupational licensure barriers.  Perhaps acting under divine inspiration, the Fifth Circuit in St. Joseph Abbey (2013) ruled that Louisiana statutes that required all casket manufacturers to be licensed funeral directors – laws that prevented monks from earning a living by making simple wooden caskets – served no other purpose than to protect the funeral industry, and, as such, violated the 14th Amendment’s Equal Protection and Due Process Clauses.  In particular, the Fifth Circuit held that protectionism, standing alone, is not a legitimate state interest sufficient to establish a “rational basis” for a state statute, and that absent other legitimate state interests, the law must fall.  Since the Sixth and Ninth Circuits also have held that intrastate protectionism standing alone is not a legitimate purpose for rational basis review, but the Tenth Circuit has held to the contrary, the time may soon be ripe for the Supreme Court to review this issue and, hopefully, delegitimize pure economic protectionism.  Such a development would place added pressure on defenders of protectionist occupational licensing schemes.  Other possible avenues for constitutional challenges to protectionist licensing regimes (perhaps, for example, under the Dormant Commerce Clause) also merit being explored, of course.  The Institute of Justice already is performing yeoman’s work in litigating numerous cases involving unjustified licensing and other encroachments on economic liberty; perhaps their example can prove an inspiration for pro bono efforts by others.

Eliminating anticompetitive occupational licensing rules – and, more generally, vindicating economic liberties that too long have been neglected – is obviously a long-term project, and far-reaching reform will not happen in the near term.  Nevertheless, while we the currently living may in the long run be dead (pace Keynes), our posterity will be alive, and we owe it to them to pursue the vindication of economic liberties under the Constitution.

Alden Abbott

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I am a Senior Legal Fellow at the Heritage Foundation. I write on antitrust, domestic and international regulatory policy, and law and economics. I am an Adjunct Faculty Member at George Mason Law School.

One response to Occupational Licensing, Competition, and the Constitution: Prospects for Reform?

  1. 

    Fantastic post. For more on the FTC’s testimony, Jarod Bona has a post at The Antitrust Attorney Blog. http://www.theantitrustattorney.com/2014/07/16/ftc-libertarian-government-agency/