Getting Permission to Work

The Institute for Justice has this fairly thorough video demonstrating the preponderance of dubious occupational license requirements in many jurisdictions:

Back in 2006, I looked at the prevalence of occupational licensing in Hillsborough County, Florida – starting with the example of requiring auctioneers to be licensed. I thought it kind of funny that a person who wanted to be an auctioneer requires a government license, while a 16-year-old who wanted to operate a large roller coaster, like at the theme park where I used to work, did not. (Subsequently, that theme park quit hiring anyone under 18 years of age – not connected to my original column I’m sure.)

At the time, Hillsborough County issued two different auctioneer licenses: one for selling your own property and one for selling someone else’s. (I contemplated interviewing an actual auctioneer, but I realized that he or she might be difficult to understand.)

When I checked back then, the tax collector’s website had 65 pages with about 20 different occupational licenses listed on each page. That’s about 1300 licenses – but I’m not a licensed mathematician, so don’t necessarily take my word for it. A host of other people also needed, however dubiously, a government license: aquarium cleaners, book binders, wig stylists and so on.

My thought was that some activities should require a license; driving came to mind. But then again, I was soon reminded of how easy my driver’s license test was and how long I had to wait in a crowded line, not to mention the many licensed drivers I’ve observed breaking any number of traffic laws.

No doubt the positives of licensing drivers still outweigh its negatives. But what about occupations like auctioneer?

The idea that a license is a way of guaranteeing that a person has the appropriate skills is noble. But like many other well-intentioned government actions, licensing requirements do have their downsides.

The licensing boards may be controlled or influenced by established contractors, who could use the board to prevent competitors from entering the market. This leads to higher prices for consumers. That a license is needed creates a burden on would-be practitioners to enter the given profession – something particularly problematic in times of economic weariness like the past few years.

Licensing also can conflict with the idea of a free market. Person “A” may be willing to pay for the services of person “B” but may be hindered by the fact that B has not obtained a license. Government, in such a situation – under the auspices of good intentions – hinders the free market through its preponderance of licensing requirements for occupations.

All of this is not even touching on government using licensing fees as a means to make up for other budget cuts, and coincidentally creating job security for the guy reviewing all of the applications (who, himself, probably doesn’t need an occupational license by the way).

So what if there were no licensing requirements for auctioneering? If an auctioneer were bad at his job – which may sometimes be hard to determine, given that most people can’t keep up with what they are saying – then word would get out, largely through non-government groups like the Better Business Bureau.

That organization has stated on its website that it “has proven that the majority of marketplace problems can be solved fairly through the use of voluntary self-regulation and consumer education.” No mention of government there.

Despite what seems to be prevailing government orthodoxy, a license isn’t needed for every occupation imaginable. But any time government can find a way to license or regulate a given activity, it will.

It’s reminiscent of this quote from Ronald Reagan: “Government’s view of the economy could be summed up in a few short phrases: ‘If it moves, tax it. If it keeps moving, regulate it. And if it stops moving, subsidize it.'”

What if there were a government license required to be a blogger? I might not even be writing this post. OK, so maybe some would like that idea. The only reason you don’t need a license to be a blogger (at least yet) is the First Amendment’s guarantee of the freedoms of speech and the press.

Perhaps the only way to end licensing of auctioneering would be to add a new constitutional amendment with wording similar to the First Amendment: “Congress shall make no law abridging the freedom of the fast-talking.” Would-be auctioneers, unite!

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