What do cat groomers, tattoo artists, tree trimmers, music therapist, locksmiths, caterers, hair stylists, florists, flower arrangers, interior designers, private detectives, hearing-aid fitters, conveyor-belt operators, frozen dessert retailers, hair-salon “shampoo specialists,” glaziers, librarians, nutritionists, respiratory therapists, athletic trainers, boxing promoters, eyebrow threaders, acupuncturists, tattoo artists, massage therapists for humans and for horses, wig servicers, karate instructors and lawyers have in common?
Answer: at least one state requires each of these “professionals” to get a license. Altogether, more than 1,100 professions require a license in at least one state.
The WSJ discusses the problem. It notes that licensing restricts occupations and raises incumbent professionals’ wages (the laws usually grandfather existing practitioners), while excluding entrants and raising prices (the article says an average of 15% compared to unlicensed workers) at a time workers and consumers least need these additional burdens. Two economists cited in the article estimate that occupational licensing adds at least $116 billion a year to the cost of services in the U.S., about 0.1% of total consumer spending.
- Texas hair-salon “shampoo specialists” must take 150 hours of classes, including 100 on the “theory and practice” of shampooing, then sit for a licensing exam with a written test and a 45-minute demonstration of skills such as draping the client with a clean cape and evenly distributing conditioner.
- Connecticut glaziers take two exams, at $52 apiece, pay $300 in initial fees and $150 annually thereafter.
- California barbers pay $12,000 for a year of courses at Arthur Borner’s Barber College despite the fact that Mr. Borner himself says “Barbering is not rocket science. I don’t think it takes 1,500 hours to learn. But that’s what the state says.”
- Louisiana flower arrangers have to pass a written exam with questions on plant names and complimentary colors.
- Michigan massage therapists must take 500 hours of classes and pass an exam to get that license.
- Alabama manicurists must have 750 hours of schooling and a written and practical exam.
- Oklahoma locksmiths must prove they’re in the U.S. legally, submit to a criminal background check, pay fees of up to $350 a year and be one of 32% of applicants who pass a 50-question exam.
How much do these laws accomplish? Alabama, with very strict licensing requirements for manicurists, gets, on average, four public complaints a year about poor service. Connecticut, with no licensing, gets six complaints a year to the state, 2/3 about gift certificates that aren’t honored. Oklahoma, which has strict locksmith licensing, got two complaints about locksmiths in more than a decade—one the year before the law took effect and one the year after.
True, some of these professions may be a threat to consumers or the public. But that doesn’t explain the incredible proliferation of licensing. Here’s a better explanation, from Karen Armstrong, a massage therapist and chair of the Michigan Board of Massage Therapy: “Not being licensed really puts our profession back behind a lot of other professions.”
Fortunately, the Institute for Justice is on the case. It got a Florida law requiring licensing of residential interior designers struck down. Commercial designers must be licensed.
Next up, cat groomers in Ohio. The Professional Cat Groomers Association of America has established written tests and a hands-on exam that helps determine which members of the trade are “worthy of being called a certified master cat groomer.” It plans to start lobbying for licensing laws. A founder of the organization wants to make sure “you are educated before you put a cat on that table.”
I have previously written about IJ suits involving licensing horse-teeth floaters and Philadelphia tour guides. In the first post I noted that “fifty years ago, just 3% of American workers were regulated or licensed by government agencies, according to the Institute for Justice. Today, it’s 35%.” In the second I observed that licensing laws were ” a business talking, but with a government stick.”
True, in some cases there is arguably a threat to public or consumer safety. But mostly this is about some squeaky wheel interest group’s quest for status and higher pay. The social costs are mounting just when the corporate jobs are drying up and people are trying to go into business for themselves. And it’s important to keep in mind that there are market alternatives to licensing: reputation, dissemination of information through the internet, certification by private trade groups.
Which brings me to legal services. What kind of talking about law should the government regulate? Glad you asked. See Lawyers as Lawmakers: A Theory of Lawyer Licensing, 69 Mo. L. Rev. 299 (2004), online version and, more recently, Law’s Information Revolution, which among other things discusses increasing market pressures on lawyer regulation.