Religion & Liberty Online

Occupational licensing harms the economically vulnerable

Note: This article is part of the ‘Principles Project,’ a list of principles, axioms, and beliefs that undergird a Christian view of economics, liberty, and virtue. Click here to read the introduction and other posts in this series.

The Principle: #10B — Because it interferes with economic liberty, occupational licensing is almost always unjust and unnecessary.

The Definitions: This principle has two key terms that need to be clearly defined:

Economic liberty — The freedom to secure and protect one’s labor, resources, and private property and to otherwise pursue human flourishing within the economic realm without unjust intervention from a government or economic authority.

Occupational licensing — A form of government regulation requiring a license to pursue a particular profession or vocation for compensation. (Source)

The Explanation:

There are numerous forms of crony capitalism, but one of the subtlest and most damaging to the economically vulnerable are occupational licensing laws. For millions of Americans, occupational licensing continues to serve as a barrier to work and self-sufficiency.

Some forms of occupational licensing are, of course, necessary to protect public safety. For instance, if someone were to perform an appendectomy on your child you’d want a pediatric surgeon who was licensed to practice medicine. But oftentimes, occupational licensing is merely a way to use the power of the government to reduce competition. Occupational licensing is one of the most oft-overlooked forms of cronyism and protectionism.

Take, for example, the case of Jestina Clayton. Clayton grew up in a village in Sierra Leone where every girl learns traditional African hair-braiding. When she was 22, Clayton moved to Centerville, Utah and found a niche market among a small group of Utah parents who had adopted African children but didn’t know how to style their hair. When she began advertising her services, though, she was shut down because she didn’t have a cosmetology license. Getting such a license would require nearly two years of school and $16,000 in tuition. What made the state’s licensing requirement particularly unreasonable was that none of the training had anything to do with braiding hair.

A federal judge eventually ruled that Utah’s requirement that Clayton get a cosmetology license to braid hair was “unconstitutional and invalid” because the regulations were irrelevant to her profession. But for millions of other Americans, occupational licensing continues to serve as a barrier to earning a living using their God-given skills.

“Occupational licensing laws harm workers, as well as consumers who purchase services from professionals that require licensure,” says Tyler Bonin. “This harm is disproportionately placed on economically disadvantaged populations. Thus, when examining the effects of excessive occupational licensing in the U.S., it becomes apparent that these laws present an undue burden on one’s right to livelihood.”

As Bonin notes, the number of occupations requiring licensure from state governments rose by nearly 25 percent between the early 1950s and the year 2008:

Governments usually cite licensure requirements as necessary to protect the health and welfare of its citizens, as well as for providing increased consumer protection.  The types of licensure requirements vary from state to state and today cover a myriad of professions.  Everything from dentists and doctors, to interior designers and florists, require licensure in many states.  The disparity in license requirements hampers professional mobility across state lines, as well.  In fact, the very existence of wide-ranging professional requirements among the states speaks to the capricious nature of licensing boards.  Licensure requirements have thus served as a cartel, or a form of professional protectionism.

Imagine if Ruth had said “Please let me glean and gather among the sheaves behind the harvesters” (Ruth 2:7) and was told that she needed a license from the city of Bethlehem to work as a gleaner. Or imagine if Paul had been told that to make tents in Corinth (Acts 18:3) he’d need an occupational license from the Roman government.

Even the backwards and oppressive governments in ancient times would have found such barriers to honest labor to be unwarranted. Why then do we tolerate such limitations on economic liberty that are unjust, unnecessary, and harmful to the working poor?

Joe Carter

Joe Carter is a Senior Editor at the Acton Institute. Joe also serves as an editor at the The Gospel Coalition, a communications specialist for the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention, and as an adjunct professor of journalism at Patrick Henry College. He is the editor of the NIV Lifehacks Bible and co-author of How to Argue like Jesus: Learning Persuasion from History's Greatest Communicator (Crossway).