The Right to Work

Crony capitalism often takes the form of unnecessary licensing, fees, and onerous paperwork — backed by government guns — to discourage new competition.  It's time this farce was exposed for what it is.

The people of Louisiana must sleep soundly knowing that their state protects them from... unlicensed florists.

That's right. In Louisiana, you can't sell flower arrangements unless you have permission from the government. How do you get permission? You must pass a test that is graded by a board of florists who already have licenses. To prepare for the test, you might have to spend $2,000 on a special course.

The test requires knowledge of techniques that florists rarely use anymore. One question asks the name of the state's agriculture commissioner — as though you can't be a good florist without knowing that piece of vital information.

The licensing board defends its test, claiming it protects consumers from florists who might sell them unhealthy flowers. I understand the established florists' wish to protect their profession's reputation, but in practice such licensing laws mainly serve to limit competition. Making it harder for newcomers to open florist shops lets established florists hog the business.

Other states are considering adopting Louisiana's licensing law, but before any do, I hope that the law will be stricken. The Institute for Justice, a public-interest law firm, has challenged the licensing in court, saying it violates liberty and equal protection, and so is unconstitutional.

"One of the most fundamental tenets of the American dream is the right to earn an honest living without arbitrary government interference. What could be more arbitrary than saying who can and who cannot sell flowers?" IJ President Chip Mellor says.

Others states have their own sets of ridiculous licensing rules. In Virginia, you need a license to be a yoga instructor. Florida threatened an interior designer with a $25,000 fine if she didn't do a six-year apprenticeship and pass a test, at a cost of several thousand dollars. Fortunately, the Institute for Justice got that law overturned.

I'm rooting for IJ because licensing interferes with the freedom to make a living, harms consumers by limiting competition and protects established firms.        

It's an old story. Established businesses have always used government to handcuff competition. Years ago, small grocers tried to ban supermarkets. A&P was going to "destroy Main Street," the grocers cried. Minnesota legislators responded to their lobbying by passing a law that forbade supermarkets to hold sales. Consumers were hurt.

OK, while licensing of florists, interior designers and yoga teachers is ridiculous, what about more important professions, like law? Surely people need protection from people who would practice law without a license. Again, I say no. Lawyers' monopoly on helping people with wills, bankruptcies and divorces is just another expensive restraint of trade.

David Price recently spent six months in a Kansas jail because he wrote a letter on behalf of a man who was wrongly accused of practicing architecture without a license. When Price refused to promise never to "practice law" again, a judge sent him to jail.

All he did was write a letter. Price didn't misrepresent his credentials. However, he did save a man from paying $3,000 to a lawyer. Perhaps that was his real offense.

Some of the most famous lawyers in American history, including Thomas Jefferson, Abraham Lincoln and Supreme Court Justice Benjamin Cardozo, had no license from the state. Their customers decided whether they were worthy of being hired.

Competition is better than government at protecting consumers from shoddy work. Furthermore, licensing creates a false sense of security. Consider this: When you move to a new community, do you ask neighbors or colleagues to recommend doctors, dentists and mechanics even though those jobs are licensed? Of course. Because you know that even with licensing laws, there is a wide range of quality and outright quackery in every occupation. You know that licensing doesn't really protect you.

A free competitive market for reputation protects consumers much more effectively than government can. Today, online services like Angie's List make it even easier for consumers to get better information about businesses than government licensing boards will ever provide. We do need protection from shoddy businesses. But it's freedom and competition that produce the best protection.

John Stossel is host of "Stossel" on the Fox Business Network. He's the author of "Give Me a Break" and of "Myth, Lies, and Downright Stupidity." To find out more about John Stossel, visit his site at 

11 comments from readers  

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I agree.

I'm a PE, a professional engineer licensed to practice in several midwest states. I am proud of my PE qualification - it's a kind of a shorthand that lets people know that I have a qualified engineering degree, I went through a long apprenticeship period, and I passed some very difficult examinations. But I also know many talented engineers who are not PEs and I feel strongly that they should have the same right to practice engineering as I do. If a customer wants a board certified doctor, engineer, lawyer, or even florist I think that is his right. But that customer should also have the right to choose someone who is not licensed if they wish to. In the states in which I am licensed it is a serious offence to even call yourself an "engineer" if you are not licensed.

Interestingly enough, that kind of protection from the state actually hurts my professionalism at times. Many contractors, building owners, and others clients acually resent the fact that the state forces them to hire a PE to accomplish their construction and as a result they do not want to listen to me or work with me anymore than they absolutely must. In those instances I am an unwelcome part of their team and my value is compromised.

Once when I was apprenticing I stood by as one of my bosses gave instructions to a contractor. The contractor was clearly very knowledgable and experienced and felt that he ahd a better idea. My boss peremptorily cut him off and pointed to his business card. "See those letters after my name? That means you'll do it my away." At the time I thought it was cool - now I'm just ashamed.

Keep up the good work for all of us.

Christopher J. Wieczorek, PE
In Florida, it is illegal to practice building contracting witout a license. The test is a two-day strenuous affair which essentially tests your ability to look up the answers in reference texts (cost $900.00, ten years ago). Most people take a prep course ($1000-2000). One must prove $20,000.00 in liquid assets before being allowed to test. I suppose one is supposed to acquire this wealth by working at a $10-$15/hr job while accumulating the knowledge required to actually build something, not just pass a test.
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Good article. I graduated from law school in Canada in 1995. But I couldn't get an articling position so I never got called to the bar despite spending all that money and all those years in university.

It felt like when Anikin Skywalker was denied training and acceptance by the Jedi Council in the recent Star Wars films.

I do understand that there are reasons for licencing professions. You don't want untrained or incompetent doctors or lawyers or mechanics, etc. The florist law of Louisiana does sound like bureaucratic overkill - a bit like licencing fitness instructors (as if you need a licence to lead people in sit-ups and jumping jacks!)

However, law is not like Reese Witherspoon in Legally Blonde. At least not in Canada. You can't just walk into court and do a murder trial without articling for 1.5 years (requires a law firm willing to hire you as an articling student) on top of the 3 years at law school and the Bar exams and getting called the the Bar and paying the professional dues to the Law Society and abiding by their rules.

I don't care any more. I did for several years after I graduated and tried for years to get an articling position. In the end you just realize the establishment and the legal profession can deny you the right to make a living if they arbitrarily want to - even if you did nothing wrong except kiss a guy at a frat party in 1990. Eventually, you forget everything you learned anyway and it doesn't matter. Maybe it's even for the best since most lawyers are jerks and the quality of life of working with them might not have been worth the supposedly high income...who knows.
I always thought Kansas had weird liquor laws until I saw a story yesterday from Pennsylvania.

Philadelphia police and state agents raided a number of pubs for selling beer that had not been properly registered by brand name. In many instances the beers were registered, but the state drones had misspelled or left out parts of the name.

The beer, a few gallons overall, will sit in state storage and go stale long before the tavern keepers get their day in court. If you believe that, you have a higher opinion of the abstemiousness of Pennsylvania police than I do.

If separation of powers really means anything, then lawyers, part of the judicial branch of government, should not be permitted to serve in the legislature. Or, as you suggest, the practice of filling out routine forms and pleading ordinary cases should be opened to anyone. After all, the old saying goes "Ignorance of the Law is no excuse". So why do lawyers and judges have a monopoly on the stuff?
Thanks for promoting IJ -- a very worthy organization.

Licensing parallels technical certification, where tech professionals take tedious courses and tests. Yet, time after time, these certified folks can't do basic tasks in a job interview.

Ask any tech manager (at least the dozens I know), A CCIE, MCSE, etc. is no indicator of an employee's skill or job performance.
Spectacular column, moving from concrete instances of violations of individual rights that any sane person would agree with to more complex (law) instance that Stossel makes sense of, too.

Great job! If all licensing were removed tonight at midnight, this country would be substantially more creative and less expensive to live in by this time next year.
John, There are 2 kinds of licenses: one to tax (e.g. fishing license) the other for public safety. I agree the state can overextend itself where the public safety is not involved. But how about medical licenses? Do you really want a guy who couldn't pass a minimum standards licensing test operating on you or your family? Sure I can ask my neighbor but what the hell does she know about finding a tumor or performing a multi-valve heart by-pass? As to lawyers, people rely on their lawyer's advice to conduct their daily affairs. If my neighbor gives me bad advice and I act on it, shame on me. If the lawyer gives me bad advice - shame on him! His license tells me he passed a test that tells me he at least knows enough law in every sublect to not be a danger to the public. Of course, anyone is capable of giving competent advice but only a professional license indicates miniman competence. Lawyers and doctors should be licensed - florists and tatoo artists don't need to!
Tom H
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Amazingly, I just finished reading the 15th Principle as written in "The 5,000 Year Leap: Principles of Freedom" by W. Cleon Skousen. The preface for this 15th Principle is "The Highest Level of Prosperity Occurs when there is Free-market Economy and a Minimum of Government Regulations". Thank you, John, for bringing real-life examples to verify this Principle! Tom Hendrix
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Another good one!

Do it, John! Lead the movement! Let's put a Constitutional halt on all this. You have the constituency to start a major rollback of government intrusion and abuse on the innocent and the industrious. You have the moral imperative to do this. Let's begin.

There are a few ruthless abusive people who use the police powers of the state to create business monopolies and limit the entry of new tradespeople and vendors-- even their own children in some cases! The only way to stop this cannibalistic idiocy is to promote a Constitutional amendment to the effect that "Government shall neither create nor enforce monopolies or exclusive franchises of any kind, excepting only the national defense, the courts, and the police." Anything less, won't work.

We should also locally amend state Constitutions and city charters to end the abuse of cities and counties "licensing" everything as a veiled means of raising taxes, which is another current fleecing of the populace and major speedbump on the economy.
In the final pages of "Atlas Shrugged" Judge Narragansett is working on the Constitution of the United States. He writes: "Congress shall make no law abridging the freedom of production and trade."

If we roll that Article or Amendment all the way from the Federal Level to the Township level, it should pretty well take care of all of the licensing and taxation nonsense.

Thank you, John. You are a true "Radical for Capitalism".
John's approach on this topic was particularly clever, because he selected some examples that were off-the-chart stupid to illustrate the absurdity of licensing, including a profession which is known to be, shall we say, not quite everyone's favorite: lawyers!

My point is that this is an effective way to reach people who are new to these ways of thinking, thanks to our wonderful progressive government schools, Hollywood and the so-called journalists.

I've really been enjoying his weekly offerings on Fox as well, although I would prefer a longer format.
To post comments, please log in first. The Atlasphere is a social networking site for admirers of Ayn Rand's novels, most notably The Fountainhead and Atlas Shrugged. In addition to our online magazine, we offer a member directory and a dating service. If you share our enjoyment of Ayn Rand's novels, please sign up or log in to post comments.