Jeff Jacoby

The counterproductive cruelties of occupational licensing

by Jeff Jacoby
The Boston Globe
November 13, 2019

An applicant for a Massachusetts cosmetology license must log 1,000 hours of education, plus two full years of hands-on experience.

COSMETOLOGISTS AND emergency medical technicians don’t have much in common.Cosmetologists treat skin, style hair, and paint nails. EMTs respond to 911 calls, administer urgent medical care, and rush patients by ambulance to hospitals.Cosmetologists are beauty-industry professionals who help people feel good about their appearance. EMTs are first responders who help people survive violent traumas and heart attacks.Cosmetologists rarely face a life-threatening crisis on the job. EMTs make life-or-death decisions every day.But there is one thing cosmetologists and EMTs do have in common: Both must be licensed by the state. The amount of training and experience needed to obtain those licenses, however, could hardly be more different. An applicant for a Massachusetts EMT license has to complete just 150 hours of education in order to qualify. But anyone seeking a cosmetology license faces a far higher hurdle: An applicant must log 1,000 hours of education, plus two full years of hands-on experience, before the Commonwealth of Massachusetts will allow them to go into the beauty business.

The gaping disparity seems bizarre. You can do the critical lifesaving work of an emergency first responder after little more than a month of study, but you can’t color hair and give manicures without years of training?That’s just one of the perversities highlighted in a new reporton occupational licensing in Massachusetts from the Pioneer Institute, a Boston think tank.

Building on the work of the Institute for Justice, a liberty-oriented law firm that mounts legal challenges to oppressive occupational licensing rules, the Pioneer report notes that the state’s licensing laws for lower-income occupations — not surgeons and airline pilots, but barbers and massage therapists — are among the most burdensome in the nation. “On average,” researcher Alex Muresianu writes, “one has to pay $309 in fees, spend roughly 513 days in education and training, and take at least one exam to receive an occupational license in the Bay State.

“The steep barriers to entry for cosmetologists are heavier here than in any other state, and that isn’t the only profession for which Massachusetts law makes it especially difficult to acquire a license. Commercial sheet metal contractors, for example, must undergo five years of training and pay hundreds of dollars in fees to get the government’s permission to work. Why? There is nothing particularly complex or dangerous about working with clients to install and repair sheet metal products. In 24 states, no license to do such work is required at all.

Similarly, Massachusetts is one of only three states that makes funeral attendants obtain a government license. It’s one of only nine to require licensing for dental assistants. State law even authorizes municipalities to license fortune tellers.And lawmakers always want to go further.

Bills to impose new licensing requirements are introduced regularly. “Currently unlicensed professions legislators have tried to license,” the think tank observes, “include associate home inspector, interior designer, swimming pool builder or service contractor, refrigerator technician, speech pathologist, drain cleaner, personal care attendant, and, most strangely, art therapist.”Years of empirical studies prove that requiring licenses for such occupations does little to protect public health or consumer welfare. The nation’s well-being is not being eroded by all the funeral attendants and art therapists doing their work without government approval.

Yet occupational licenses aren’t merely ineffective; they are affirmatively harmful.Pioneer itemizes the many negative consequences: Licensing laws sharply reduce mobility of workers between states. They depress low-income entrepreneurship. They disproportionately hurt young people, by protecting incumbent workers and obstructing those just entering the workforce. They have a particularly negative impact on minorities and the poor. In some states, including Massachusetts, they even exacerbate the student loan crisis: Occupational licenses can be stripped from borrowers who default, making it even harder for them to pay their debts.

Under Massachusetts law, cities and towns are authorized to license even fortune tellers.Add it up, and the financial impact imposed by occupational licensing is staggering. The data compiled by Pioneer suggests that such laws cost Massachusetts more than 64,000 jobs, and deprive the state of at least $411 million in economic activity.

For any licensing requirement, there will always be a small but fervent cohort of defenders: Those already in the field who want to minimize competition. The benefit they enjoy is very real — but it comes a heavy cost to everyone else.Pioneer puts the stakes bluntly: “Occupational licensing laws make it a crime to engage in simple behaviors like cutting hair, doing someone’s nails, or arranging flowers in exchange for payment.” Government shouldn’t be in the business of keeping people from making a living. After all, you don’t need the state’s permission to be a politician or a journalist. Why should you need its approval to be a dental assistant?

(Jeff Jacoby is a columnist for The Boston Globe).– ## —

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I am a retired Roman Catholic Bishop, Bishop Emeritus of Corpus Christi, Texas
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