NEW YORK (MainStreet) — Curious why Uber has exploded in Manhattan? Why Chicago hasn’t yet caught up with the food truck craze and florists seem just a little more expensive in New Orleans? The reason is the spread of business licenses. Properly used, professional registration lets the government keep tabs on professions that could harm consumers. Restaurants have their kitchens inspected, and doctors must pass board certification, because, in those industries, shoddy work could kill somebody.
While protecting the public from danger or fraud is one thing, however, simply making sure that everyone is doing a good job is another. Many business licenses today have less to do with protecting consumers than with fencing out competition. The more expensive it is to enter a business, the fewer people will try to do so. Unfortunately, the trend is growing.
“About one in three people now need the government’s permission to work,” according to Matt Miller, managing attorney for the Texas office of the Institute for Justice. “It’s often things that people have been doing for a long time and are perfectly safe, but then a group of [businesses] will go to the legislature and seek the legitimacy and the protection that comes from having the government regulate.”
This isn’t about whose job is better or whose is worse. It’s about when government agencies should demand time, effort and cash before they’ll let someone work. Want some examples? Here are 12 of the most absurd or overbearing licenses standing between you and your next job.
Only one state imposes a florist’s license. Louisiana requires $75, an entrance exam and an exam fee of $50 in order to prove you’ve got what it takes to do baby’s breath just right. The exam is conducted by the state Horticultural Commission, a group of other florists who might just not want the competition; this policy routinely comes under fire as one of the most nakedly protectionist license rackets in the country.
It used to be worse. Up until 2010, the licensing test included a demonstration component, during which applicants had to prove that they could create sufficiently attractive arrangements. (By extension, the licensing board was allowed to shut down a shop whose flowers just weren’t pretty enough.) No amateurs allowed here. In New Orleans, they only allow bouquets that have been assembled by a professional. Whatever that means.
11. Food Trucks
Food trucks have gone nationwide over the last decade, and for good reason. They’re the tech-startups of the food world. Like Amazon or Netflix, without the overhead of a brick-and-mortar location, your local Tac-Go can experiment. To boot, talented newcomers can get into the game and start slinging their hash to dash. Bank loans? Who needs them, I’ve got a station wagon.
These are the reasons people love food trucks. They’re also the reasons that restaurants hate them. Cities across America have pushed through increasingly draconian measures, such as Washington D.C.’s dedicated food truck parking spots, assigned by lottery, or Chicago’s 200 foot from the door of any restaurant restraining order along with a required GPS device in every vehicle. Try any big city, how many spots do you think are 200 feet from the door of every restaurant? In how many other circumstances does someone actually have to carry a GPS to enforce compliance with the law? Ostensibly passed in the name of health and safety, somehow the advocates of these laws can’t quite explain the absence of food truck deaths sweeping New York, Philly or San Francisco.
In general a law license makes sense if for no other reason than to keep tabs on practitioners. Law is a position of trust, not to mention potentially depreciating skill as practitioners age, and it’s reasonable to require periodic evaluation.
It’s the execution that’s flawed. Once you’ve gone through law school (three years, $150,000), taken the bar exam (three months of study, $6,000) and started a career, you’d better love the state you picked, because it’s going to be brutally hard to leave. That license that just took thousands of dollars and months of study is non-transferrable outside of certain, relatively narrowly defined circumstances known as reciprocity. For a lawyer to change states generally means taking the bar exam all over again.
State bar exams are based on the flawed idea that lawyers memorize local laws, or that there’s even such a thing as “knowing the law.” They don’t, and there isn’t. Lawyers learn through practice, man hours and painstaking research. Having lawyers prove basic competence makes sense. Having them spend months and a small fortune retaking a test just because their spouse got a transfer to the Pacific Northwest does not.
9. Interior Designer
We’ll let this sink in for a moment: Nevada, Louisiana, Florida and Washington D.C. actually require a license to advise people on where best to place their new sectional. What’s more, according to the Institute for Justice, an interior design license is more demanding than most requirements to work as an EMT.
“Interior designer tops the list as the most difficult occupation to enter in the states where it is licensed,” according to License to Work. “Although licensed in only three states and D.C., the requirements are onerous. Aspiring designers must pass a national exam, pay an average of $364 in fees and devote an average of almost 2,200 days—six years—to a combination of education and apprenticeship before they can begin work.”
By contrast the average technician trying to keep you alive in the back of that ambulance needed to spend just over a month in training before showing up for work.
8. Taxi Driver
By now we’re all familiar with the rise of companies such as Uber and Lyft, ride sharing services that have come to prominence particularly due to the seeming impossibility these days of catching a cab.
The thing is, for all those frustrated consumers who have abandoned the traditional yellow car for a smart phone app, it turns out you were absolutely right. Hailing a cab has gotten harder. How much harder? In 1937, New York City issued 11,787 taxi medallions citywide. It’s been nearly 80 years since, and that number has now climbed to 13,150. Meanwhile, demand skyrocketed to the point where the right to drive a cab around the five boroughs sells for over a million dollars.
Taxi medallions demonstrate all the worst elements of protectionist licensing, and the industry is starting to pay for it. If Uber’s threat to take over professional driving ever comes true, the taxis will have no one to blame but themselves.
7. Home Entertainment Installer
It’s good to know that Massachusetts, Connecticut and, yes again, Louisiana have taken it upon themselves to protect us from the scourge of stripped leads, misadjusted levels and poorly programmed remote controls. Without these licensing exams and two years of classes in Louisiana foisted upon technicians, local customers might risk missing the University of Michigan wallop Ohio State this November.
Or at least they might have to spend a few minutes searching Manuals Online to set up their own surround sound system. But is that a world we really want to live in?
6. Travel Agent
Do travel agents really need anyone to make their lives harder these days? Evidently so, because eight states actually require them to register and pay administrative fees on top of their daily battle with the future and their continual obsolescence..
Now, the rest of us manage to successfully avoid disaster every time we book airfare online, but perhaps we’re just the lucky ones. For all we know states like Iowa, Pennsylvania and Washington are the silent watchdogs over a latent threat. Or maybe they’ve just found a way to shake some cash loose from people who specialize in planning great vacations, finding obscure deals and somehow successfully competing with Google. It’s not exactly the same as checking up on the surgeons.
This entry is precisely what it sounds like. In seven states, you must pay a licensing fee and pass a test in order to put things in boxes and tape them up.
Happily, this is one of the least burdensome barriers to entry out there. It comes in a close second behind gas station attendant (below), with six states demanding registration fees that range from $150 in Arizona to $20 in Kentucky. Unhappily, such lax requirements generally only serve to highlight just how unnecessary such a rule really is. How, exactly, are the people of Kentucky made safer by extracting $20 from the guy down at the UPS Store? Does the money go to emergency tape gun seminars?
4. Barber and Shampooer
We’re all used to the idea that a barber, or stylist, requires training and licensure, but have we ever considered how ridiculous that really is? It’s not that these are industries without talent - far from it - but an incompetent barber poses no genuine threat to anyone. Once upon a time when the trade involved naked razors, regulation would have made sense. Today the worst that this license protects us from is the stigma of a bad haircut and finding a new shop. Barbers and stylists are skilled professionals, and they shouldn’t have to convince a government agency of that fact.
Worse luck still for the shampooers, who have licensure requirements in five states. The most stringent, Tennessee, requires 70 days of training, a $140 fee and two exams before allowing anyone on the job. (What, exactly, do they spend two months training in?) Meanwhile the unregistered masses in Nashville practice their forbidden art every morning in the shower, we’re certain with devastating consequences.
The mere fact that a job can be done poorly is not enough to warrant protection from the government, or else we’d have to stand in line for just about everything that we do. This holds true for upholsterers too, who in seven states have to prove their worth before they can stitch a sofa back together or reline the interior of a car.
In fact, the upholsterers’ licenses are one of the most naked cash grabs on this list. None of the states in question require any testing or certification of skills, just that the professional register and pay a fee ranging from $50 in Pennsylvania to $350 in California.
2. Gas Pumper
For most people on the East Coast it’s common knowledge that New Jersey does not allow motorists to pump their own gas. In order to make sure that this demanding and dangerous job gets done right, the state also requires that attendants meet training and certification requirements.
Fortunately, the law is not onerous. A would-be attended must take his apprenticeship under “an experienced operator regarding the dispensing of fuel” for at least eight hours and pass an examination given by this operator. Unfortunately, this still leaves a training and certification requirement in place for a task that the rest of us do in between finishing our phone calls and grabbing a gas station hot dog.
The latter may prove that New Jersey has legitimate concerns about our judgment after all.
1. Hair Braider
Cosmetologists are licensed in every state, and with good reason. They work in a health care-adjacent field and can in fact do real harm if given the chance.
People who braid your hair cannot. Like barbers, above, the worst crime they can commit is inspiring a fashion emergency, and fear of incompetence is not grounds for government regulation.
That’s what the market is there for: if someone can’t do the job, he goes out of business. Yet many states require hair braiders, who do nothing else, to get a cosmetology license nevertheless. According to Miller this can sometimes cost as much as $10,000 and take over 1,500 hours of training, all spent learning and proving knowledge that they’ll never use again.
--Written for MainStreet by Eric Reed, a freelance journalist who writes frequently on the subjects of career and travel. You can read more of his work at his website www.wanderinglawyer.com.