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The High Cost of Occupational Licensing

Tags Bureaucracy and Regulation

One of the most fundamental things about economics — which many people who are passionate about politics do not understand — is that the economy is not like a chess board where you can move one piece with deterministic and predictable consequences. On the contrary, an economy is an intricate fabric of interrelated institutions and actors all of whom act relative to one another. Any one move creates a cascade of domino effects. If the price of milk changes dramatically then orange juice sales might be affected — and with them the prices of other fruits as well. It's impossible to predict.

The role of a good economist is to be able to follow the threads of consequences likely to result from a certain policy. If done properly, this can help to minimize the damage done by the short-sightedness of policymakers (and would-be policymakers) seeking some immediate and favorable end.

Many policies can end up having the opposite effect from what is intended.

Beauty Salon Economics

For example, suppose some of the fancy hair salons are getting irked because cheap salons are popping up everywhere and giving people poor quality haircuts. As far as the high end shops are concerned, those "other" salons are giving the whole industry a bad name. So a coalition goes to the government to pass standards and licensing laws in the hairdressing industry (in some places you currently need a license to braid hair.) That’s going to improve the quality of haircuts, right?

Not necessarily. Now all the hair salons have to send their employees to college for two years to get a license, and when they graduate they are expecting much higher pay because they just sunk two years into an education which they saw no money during. They went out drinking with their student loans, paid rent, and accrued debts. What’s more the salons need to consult special accountants or lawyers to make sure they can prove that they are adhering to the new regulations — even the ones who are way ahead of the law already providing far better conditions and services than the existing standards. Such professionals can charge upward.s of $100 an hour. Many independent salons simply can’t afford the increase in costs and have to close down entirely; others have to jack prices up to pay for the extra costs of compliance and staff. In some areas only one salon is left standing and since people have less choice they can afford to let standards slip.

With the price of haircuts going up lots of people decide to go without. They cut their friends hair at home. Badly. Or they get pretty good at it and don’t have to go to the hairdressers any more but take longer to prepare for going out and miss out of the chat and gossip. What’s more, everyone who does still go for a professional haircut has less left over to spend on a manicure or something else nice, so other industries also suffer. You can add to that the marginal increase in taxes to pay the civil servants in the new public body which acts as a regulator for the hairdressing industry. Now those people are involved in busy work instead of making commodities and providing services that improve people’s living standards in real terms and rather than paying into the public purse they are a net drain on it.

I choose a relatively trivial example because it’s perfectly illustrative of how a seemingly simple and innocuous policy suggestion — mandatory hairdressing licenses — can generate more than its fair share of consequences. (Yes, hair cuts are not a life or death issue. But so are many other activities that are similarly regulated.) An alternative is for a series of private watchdogs to certify only hairdressers that meet their standards and give the ones who do an official number and sticker to put in their window; because they are competing they have to keep the costs of certification to a minimum (no $100 an hour fees), and people who are not fussed to pay extra for a certified cut can take a risk on somewhere cheaper or go by word of mouth.

Occupational licensing makes for an interesting case because it is almost ubiquitously considered in the public interest and even necessary to prevent catastrophe. And yet there is actually zero evidence that it leads to a higher quality of service provision. Zilch!

After compiling a meta-analysis entitled, "Rule of Experts," S. David Young concluded “…most of the evidence suggests that licensing has, at best, a neutral effect on quality and may even cause harm to the consumers. ... The higher entry standards imposed by licensing laws reduce the supply of professional services. … The poor are net losers because the availability of low-cost service has been reduced.”

Stanley Gross of Indiana State University, had to concur, “…mainly the research refutes the claim that licensing protects the public.”

More recently economics PhD Morris Kleiner released two publications (2006, 2013) for the Upjohn Institute for Employment Research demonstrating that licensing occupations does more to restrict competition that to ensure quality.

However, until this is more broadly understood we may continue seeing mandatory licensing, not just for hairdressers and manicurists, but for tour guides, librarians, locksmiths, dry cleaners, auctioneers, fruit ripeners, plumbers, private investigators, Christmas tree vendors, florists, interior designers, funeral directors, cab drivers, shampoo specialists, glass installers, cat groomers, tree groomers, hunting guides, kick boxers, real estate agents, tattoo artists, nutritionists, acupuncturists, music therapists, yoga instructors, morticians with all the all-but-invisible (to the untrained eye) attendant consequences.


Antony Sammeroff

Antony Sammeroff co-hosts the Scottish Liberty Podcast and has featured prominently on other libertarian themed shows including The Tom Woods Show, Lions of Liberty, School Sucks Podcast, and many more. His book Universal Basic Income — For and Against (with a foreword by Robert P. Murphy) is available in paperback and on Amazon Kindle. His previous self-help book Procrastination Annihilation is free to download from BeYourselfAndLoveIt.com. Antony blogs on economic issues at SeeingNotSeen.Blogspot.com and his articles have also been published by the Scottish Libertarian Party, the Cobden Centre, The Backbencher, The Rational Rise, and ActualAnarchy.com.

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