Michigan ranks sixth in the nation when it comes to occupational licensing, with 116 different occupations requiring state approval, according to a recent Reason Foundation report.

Michigan even has a license for reptile catchers. You’d think with only one native venomous snake, the Massasauga Rattlesnake — and a relatively benign one at that — we might not need to rank so highly in this area of policy. Apparently not.

So, why do we have all of these licenses? Who comes up with them? Here’s a hypothetical example of how such policies come about:

A lawmaker meets with lobbyists representing an association of interior designers. The lobbyists say interior designers contribute $10 million annually to the state economy and provide more than 10,000 good paying jobs. Interior designers work hard to have a good reputation, say the lobbyists, but all of that is in danger. Rogue designers who are not members of the association have been undercutting prices and providing shoddy workmanship that damages all designers’ reputations. The lobbyists tell of one such designer who made a cheap shelving unit that collapsed, injuring the customer.

To remedy this, the association proposes requiring all interior designers to be registered with the state. They propose a course of study (provided by the association, to members only) and a test administered by a state panel of design experts (largely representatives of the association). Applicants must pay a $500 fee to cover the cost of the course, the test, the panel and all other related activities. Fee money would also be used to investigate and prosecute any unlicensed designers — including levying a $500 fine for first time offenders and $1,000 for repeats.

The lawmaker likes the idea of "protecting" his constituents and introduces a package of bills, mostly drafted by design association lawyers. The legislation passes the Legislature and is signed by the governor with little fanfare, as the association lines up members to testify in favor of it and the media reprints their supportive statements on this "consumer protection" package.

That’s the side of the story that is easy for everyone to see. Here’s another side:

Jane Citizen works 40-plus hours per week to sustain her family, and because of her interest in it, started her own interior design business. She has no formal training in design, and neither time nor money to pay for it. Her customers are happy, and her business has been steadily growing by word-of-mouth. Jane has never been a member of any design associations and doesn’t have time to attend conferences or read their publications, nor does she have extra cash to pay their dues.

The new "consumer protection" act goes into effect without Jane’s knowledge. She is soon approached on the job by a bureaucrat asking to see her registration. He informs her that she is violating the law and must pay a $500 fine and cease plying her trade immediately. She must become registered or face additional fines and/or legal action. Jane doesn’t have the extra $500, nor does she have the time to take the state-required course or the money to pay for it. She has unknowingly violated the law and must cease earning her living.

Lawmakers received short-lived but positive press for "protecting consumers." But who was protected? Jane and those depending on her income were not protected by the new law. Her happy customers who lost her skills and competitive prices were not protected. The design association was the only party protected. They eliminated competitors who drove down prices. They protected their monopoly and damaged the marketplace.

Under such a law Jane and her willing customers are "protected" from an honest and mutually satisfactory transaction. Free exchange ceases to be a natural right protected by government; instead it becomes a privilege bestowed by government. No longer can market competition ensure the best services at the best price; instead a trade monopoly, using the force of government, ensures the highest price for their service. No longer do free people choose what constitutes a fair price, a fair wage and good design; instead a government panel decides for them.

The next time you hear about "consumer protection" legislation that requires yet more licensing, check to see who it really protects. When government uses force to create and protect industry monopolies for "public safety," it subverts our natural rights. That’s more dangerous than a room full of collapsing shelves.

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Isaac M. Morehouse is director of campus leadership for the Mackinac Center for Public Policy, a research and educational institute headquartered in Midland, Mich. Permission to reprint in whole or in part is hereby granted, provided that the author and the Center are properly cited.

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