Rules for fools

IN 1941 Franklin Roosevelt added two new items to America’s ancestral freedoms of speech and worship: freedom from fear and freedom from want. Today’s politicians offer a far more generous menu: freedom from unlicensed hair-cutters, freedom from cowboy flower-arrangers and, most important of all, freedom from rogue interior designers. What is the point of enjoying freedom from fear or want, after all, if you cannot enjoy freedom from poorly co-ordinated colour schemes?

In the 1950s, when organisation man ruled, fewer than 5% of American workers needed licences. Today, after three decades of deregulation, the figure is almost 30%. Add to that people who are preparing to obtain a licence or whose jobs involve some form of certification and the share is 38%. Other rich countries impose far fewer fetters than the land of the free. In Britain only 13% of workers need licences (though that has doubled in 12 years).

Some occupations clearly need to be licensed. Nobody wants to unleash amateur doctors and dentists on the public, or untrained tattoo artists for that matter. But, as the Wall Street Journal has doggedly pointed out, America’s Licence Raj has extended its tentacles into occupations that pose no plausible threat to health or safety—occupations, moreover, that are governed by considerations of taste rather than anything that can be objectively measured by licensing authorities. The list of jobs that require licences in some states already sounds like something from Monty Python—florists, handymen, wrestlers, tour guides, frozen-dessert sellers, firework operatives, second-hand booksellers and, of course, interior designers—but it will become sillier still if ambitious cat-groomers and dog-walkers get their way.

Getting a licence can be time-consuming. Want to become a barber in California? That will require studying the art of cutting and blow-drying for almost a year. Want to work in the wig trade in Texas? You will need to take 300 hours of classes and pass both written and practical exams. Alabama obliges manicurists to sit through 750 hours of instruction before taking a practical exam. Florida will not let you work as an interior designer unless you complete a four-year university degree and a two-year apprenticeship and pass a two-day examination.

America’s Licence Raj crushes would-be entrepreneurs. Consider three people who come from very different states and occupations. Jestina Clayton is an African hair-braider with 23 years of experience. But the Utah Barber, Cosmetologist/Barber, Esthetician, Electrologist and Nail Technician Licensing Board told her that she cannot practise her craft unless she first obtains a licence—which means spending up to $18,000 on 2,000 hours of study, none of it devoted to African hair-braiding.

Read More at The Economist Schumpeter, The Economist