License and Registration, Please

2007-11-02

In a recent comment on an older post of mine, someone with the nickname of "draq" disagrees with me about occupational licensing:

First, I am pro some degree of governmental regulation on occupational licensing. If I go to a doctor, I want be sure that he does not kill me by misdiagnosing me; if I go to a restaurant, I want be sure that I don’t get poisoned. Whoever provide the ’service of surveillance’, I want a simple guarantee instead of reading all the smallprints of the menu.

Amusingly (or not), plenty of people die each year because of medical malpractice, and plenty of people get food poisoning at restaurants. Why assume that doctors and restaurateurs want to kill or poison you? How in the world is that in their best interest? To think that it's only the regulators who protect you is folly indeed.

Further, it would be interesting to compare (most broadly) customer satisfaction across jurisdictions with regard to occupational licensing. For example, Louisiana is the only state in America that requires a government-issued license to be a florist (!). Are people in Louisiana happier with the resulting floral arrangements? Some states require occupational licensing for interior decorators. Are people in those states happier with the insides of their homes? Are government-licensed auctioneers, dry cleaners, tatoo artists, escorts, exotic dancers, gravel pit operators, rickshaw drivers, security guards, tow-truck operators, tree trimmers, and the like (yes, all of those professions and more require a license in Denver, Colorado) superior to their unlicensed counterparts? Presumably there are empirical claims behind the licensing requirements. Where is the evidence?

And why those professions but not others? We all depend on the work of computer programmers, customer service representatives, auto mechanics, editors, journalists, politicians, carpenters, grocers, miners, farmers, and ten thousand other professions. Why aren't they licensed? What's so special about doctors, lawyers, plumbers, and the like?

And of course there's the ultimate question: who licenses the licensors? If licensing is so critically important, then presumably the people who design and implement the licensing schemes need to be intelligently and carefully licensed themselves. But who will design and implement the licensing scheme that applies to those who design and implement the licensing schemes?

I tend to think we might do better with fewer restrictions on entry into a field but more open information about practitioners. You remember what they call the person who graduated at the bottom of the class in medical school, right? "Doctor." Just because someone met the requirements for licensing doesn't mean they are good at what they do. In fact, it appears that licensing boards are more concerned about going after the unlicensed than in policing those who are licensed.

If I can find the time I'll read Licensing Occupations: Ensuring Quality or Restricting Competition? by Morris M. Kleiner and report on my findings. Until then I'm simply trusting in my inherent skepticism about rent-seeking behavior on the part of incumbents, and going by the usual semi-informed hunches.

But then again that's what most bloggers do. Hey, maybe we need occupational licensing for bloggers, eh? Wouldn't the journalistic incumbents drool over that one!


Peter Saint-Andre > Journal