walter russell mead peter berger lilia shevtsova adam garfinkle andrew a. michta
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The Guild-ed Age
The Government's Here to Protect You from Your Florist

Credentialism is so out of control in America that even the NYT has noticed. Morris Kleiner reports that state governments are increasingly requiring individuals to obtain licenses before entering professions of all kinds, from manicurist to florist. These laws are ostensibly designed to make sure only qualified individuals enter these professions, because apparently only a unwieldy government bureaucracy can protect us from the dangers of ugly floral arrangements and rogue parking attendants. But their effect is much different:

In the 1970s, about 10 percent of individuals who worked had to have licenses, but by 2008, almost 30 percent of the work force needed them.

With this explosion of licensing laws has come a national patchwork of stealth regulation that has, among other things, restricted labor markets, innovation and worker mobility. There is a role for government in protecting the public from incompetent or unscrupulous service providers, but there is little reason for math teachers to be relicensed every time they move from one state to another. These requirements put additional burdens on teachers that reduce the ability of good teachers to find work and schools to find good teachers.

As the piece goes on to note, credentialism raises incomes for licensed professionals, who then charge more for their services. Richer consumers can keep up with rising costs, but poorer ones are increasingly unable to afford these services. And though licensing laws do raise incomes for protected providers, they also close off the field to young Americans or outsiders looking for work. They have thus drawn bipartisan opposition, but so far no coalition has been able to stop the trend from continuing.

Perhaps the reason they’ve had so little success is that the credentialing mindset is so deeply ingrained in our entire educational and vocational system. Reliance on bachelor’s degrees (and increasingly master’s degrees as well) as a sorting mechanism for many jobs imposes huge burdens on young people, and in many cases serves no rational purpose other than to feed the academic beast. Rent-seeking professional groups are choking the American economy by erecting barriers to entry that burden everyone else, and it needs to stop.

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  • Matthew Schultz

    I recently ran into this problem trying to get work in financial services. I’m told I’d do well in the field, but it turns out you need to get some number of certifications, which I suppose is fine in of itself. However, you can’t actually sit for the relevant exams without a company sponsoring you.

    As a result, I’ve moved my job search to another field. Frustrating.

  • http://westernhero.blogspot.com/ Silverfiddle

    We need to make a distinction here.

    Licensing just so government can collect taxes and syndicates can control the supply of a commercial service is bad.

    Licensing based upon demonstrated skill and knowledge is legitimate, as used in the professional traded like welding, HVAV, and increasingly in computer and technology-based industries.

    • rheddles

      You need to distinguish between licensing and certification. Licensing is done by government to collect taxes and control supply. But certification is done by an independent third party to indicate that standards have been met.

      • http://westernhero.blogspot.com/ Silverfiddle

        Yes. Thank you for the clarification.

  • Loader2000

    I’ll be clear, unless my health and/or safety are at risk, I absolutely do not want the person I hire to be licensed, not if it means higher cost of services and barrier to entries. I know how to use Angie’s list and do not need a state sanctioned licensing monopoly throwing sand into the gears of the economy.
    That being said, I am very glad that doctors, dentists and perhaps some building professionals are licensed. However, I absolutely do not want my florists, accountants, computer scientists, or hair professionals licensed.

    What infuriates me is that there is a movement right now to license my profession (statisticians). The American Statistical Society has started offering certificates that certify one is an approved statistician by the American Statistical Society. It is utter nonsense. The skill sets involved in a given job (as statistician) are so uniquely different from job to job that a certification has no value and if they ever become required, it will simply be another stupid loophole we as statisticians have to jump through in order to supply to the American Statistical Society with funds and increased influence.

  • LarryD

    Abolish “grandfathering” current practioners when licenseing a vocation. Everyone should have to pass the full tests each licenseing cycle.

    We can also discourage such rent seeking by placing licensed occupations under price controls (as goverment created cartels).

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