IN SOME PRECINCTS, this is what passes for a joke about libertarians: "Ayn Rand, Rand Paul, and Paul Ryan walk into a bar. The bartender serves them tainted alcohol because there are no regulations. They die."
The humor there eludes me, but it must work for someone: That alleged witticism has garnered tens of thousands of Twitter "likes" and retweets.
Unabashed libertarians can be wacky — at the Libertarian Party convention in Florida last weekend, one contender performed a striptease — but they aren't anarchists. Libertarianism isn't a philosophy of dog-eat-dog or of a society with no protections for health and safety. It is a philosophy that promotes maximum freedom of choice, so long as it doesn't involve force or fraud by individuals or by government. The influential libertarian writer Leonard Read summarized the idea in a single phrase: "Anything that's peaceful."
Lame-o jibes about tainted alcohol notwithstanding, libertarian policy ideas have made some important gains recently. Perhaps the most significant is the growing support for rolling back occupational licensing, so that more people can work without needing Big Brother's consent.
For decades, states have declared more and more occupations off-limits to anyone without a government permit. "In the early 1950s less than 5 percent of US workers were required to have a license from a state government in order to perform their jobs legally," observed the Brookings Institution in a study last year. "By 2008, the share of workers requiring a license to work was estimated to be almost 29 percent." To become a barber in Massachusetts, as Leon Neyfakh noted in the Boston Globe last year, a prospective hair-cutter must spend 1,000 hours of study at a barber school, followed by a year and a half as an apprentice. Florida mandates a minimum of six years of training before it will license an interior designer. In Oklahoma, anyone wishing merely to sell caskets has to earn a degree in mortuary science, undergo a year-long apprenticeship in funeral services, and pass a state-mandated exam.
Licensing requirements just as onerous or ludicrous can be found in almost every state. Arizona licenses talent agents. Tennessee prohibits shampooing hair without a license. But the pendulum is finally heading in the other direction.
Reformers left and right have mobilized against laws that pointlessly force Americans to be licensed by the state before they can get a job in their chosen field. To compel would-be surgeons and airline pilots to obtain the government's imprimatur as a condition of employment is one thing. But when the states impose licensing mandates on locksmiths and yoga instructors and hair braiders and florists, they clearly aren't being motivated by concern for public safety and the well-being of powerless consumers.
The proliferation of occupational licenses, especially for blue-collar and working-class trades, has been driven by naked rent-seeking. That is the term economists use when narrow special interests use political connections to secure benefits for themselves — in this case, when established practitioners press lawmakers to enact licensing and registration barriers that hold down competition. Thus, as libertarians have maintained for years, occupational licensing aggressively benefits "haves" at the expense of "have-nots."
The Institute for Justice, the nation's leading libertarian law firm, has long argued that the right of an individual to earn a living without unnecessary government interference goes to the heart of the American Dream. Licensing laws block honest people from doing honest work. That makes entrepreneurship more difficult in general; it makes it especially tough for Americans from low-income backgrounds, for immigrants and minorities, and for those without an advanced education.
The Obama administration has taken up this issue as well. "By making it harder to enter a profession, licensing can reduce employment opportunities, lower wages for excluded workers, and increase costs for consumers," wrote the Treasury Department, the Department of Labor, and the Council of Economic Advisers in a joint report in July 2015. "Licensing restrictions cost millions of jobs nationwide and raise consumer expenses by over one hundred billion dollars. The stakes involved are high."
But there's been progress.
Two years ago, the Institute for Justice filed a federal lawsuit in Georgia challenging a Savannah ordinance that barred private individuals from giving tours without a license. To get a license, tour guides were required to pass an elaborate test on local history and architecture, obtain medical certification, and pay recurring fees to city hall. After a year of litigation, Savannah backed down and repealed the ordinance.
Why should a hair braider — like Jestina Clayton of Centerville, Utah, shown above — need a permit from the government in order to ply her trade and make a living?
Other gains have come in Arizona, where Governor Doug Ducey just signed legislation repealing state license requirements for a number of jobs, including driving instructor, citrus fruit packer, and cremationist. In North Carolina, a bill underway in the legislature would make it lawful to earn a living — without needing government approval — as a laser hair remover, sign-language interpreter, acupuncturist, and pastoral counselor. Nebraska Governor Pete Ricketts recently signed a measure liberating hair-braiders from licensing rules.
Consumers won't be exposed to the wolves if the state doesn't supervise every occupation. The private sector is replete with certifying, rating, and accrediting bodies that can attest to the qualifications of almost any occupation and product. The internet empowers consumers as never before with timely information about vendors, professionals, and service-providers of all kinds. From Angie's List to Yelp, from Uber to TripAdvisor, the market promotes transparency and reveals quality with a nimble persistence no state agency can ever match.
If baristas, illustrators, and journalists can operate free from government licensing, hair braiders, painting contractors, and acupuncturists can too. It's fine to walk in to the Libertarian Bar. Your drink will be safe, even without a government certificate on the wall.
(Jeff Jacoby is a columnist for The Boston Globe).
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