SADOW: Stupid Licensing Rules Ought To Become A Campaign Issue This Fall

Even a stopped clock is right twice a day, as Pres. Barack Obama surely is with a call Louisiana policy-makers particularly should heed to get rid of useless, special-interest-serving licensing requirements.

Actually, Obama didn’t go quite that far in his budgetary call to apportion $15 million to states to study ways of achieving this, declaring only that barriers impeded market entry or mobility. But that’s the practical effect of licensing, which only occasionally and for skilled professional, important work should be necessary. For all others, licensing is a way of limiting the supply of workers in a field, allowing those in the club to charge higher fees and thereby unfairly extract more wealth from consumers with lesser incentive to deliver quality from this market distortion sanctioned by government.

The idea has special trenchancy for Louisiana as it abuses licensing in this fashion more than any other state, according to the perspicacious Institute for Justice. It was this organization that pressured successfully the state at least to tone down its ridiculous florist licensing through removal of the absurd arrangement quiz and won in court the overturning of the state’s asinine regulation that to sell caskets one had to have a funeral director’s license. Among the sillier requirements still on the books are licensing for interior designers (the people who spend other people’s money), pest control workers (the guys with the spray cans who spend 5 minutes spraying corners and baseboards), and home entertainment installers (who wrangle with rolls of cables that don’t get sorted out until the fifth try); most states don’t require any licensing for these jobs. Other over-regulated occupations require surrealistic effort – barbers and cosmetologists must have 350 training days, greater than eight times that required of emergency medical technicians.

Just as correctly, Treasurer John Kennedy pointed out this folly should not need federal taxpayer dollars dangled in front of state policy-makers to clean it up. Long ago Louisiana’s should have parsed the lot of these and tossed out many and modified others to minimize their restraint-of-trade aspects as a matter of responsibility to the public, not waiting upon any financial incentives to do so.

But that hasn’t happened, because of the state’s populist heritage. Populism by nature pits divisively people against each other where one group tries to use government to extract power and privilege from another, in this instance steering resources to an industry that wants to use regulation to feather its own nest. Neatly, they justify it by appealing to the base prejudice of populism that some bogeyman will cause you distress unless government protects you. Licensing is the ultimate expression of the notion that government must enforce a protection racket because people are too dumb to figure out, for example, what is a nice-looking floral arrangement, what isn’t a fly-by-night casket, whether a sound system works, or if your house’s interior exudes bad taste.

So politicians cultivate the special interests that are these occupations, and those related to them such as unions, for support by allowing them to sell to the public a bill of goods that horrible things will befall you unless government guarantees competence even in the things least in need of expertise. Not only do lawmakers show no taste for rolling these back, if anything they do the opposite as shown by the legislative battle last year to impose statewide licensing standards on elevator inspectors.

Unfortunately, only the continued gravitation away from populism may get these politicians’ minds right. Voter clamoring against needless licensing that serves only as restraints on trade to benefit the gatekeepers already in the industry by restricting entry into it can help accelerate the process, thus the public should make this an issue to which candidates seeking election this fall must answer.

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