Saturday, April 30, 2016

Occupational Licensing, the Criminal Law and Vocational Liberty

He Told You So

A story on the Wall Street Journal's "Law Blog" highlights a study by the National Employment Law Project demonstrating one of the many perils of occupational licensing statutes, namely, that many such statutes needlessly exclude individuals with a criminal record, including some with misdemeanors, from employment in the field in question.  According to the story, about one in four Americans works in a profession that requires a state license, and nearly one third of Americans have a criminal record.  While some states (e.g. Minnesota), ignore convictions for offenses unrelated to the licensed occupation in question, others invoke unrelated convictions to bar individuals from a licensed occupation, sometimes declaring such convictions evidence of the sort of "moral turpitude" that requires such exclusion.

As a result of these restrictions, perhaps millions of Americans cannot pursue the vocation of their choice in some states, thereby undermining basic occupational liberty, preventing countless voluntary transactions, and depriving society of the productive services of talented individuals. To be sure, some of these restrictions may serve valid public purposes, as when a state bars convicted bank robbers from driving armored cars. However, many such restrictions do not, as when, for instance, a state bars an individual convicted of marijuana possession from serving as a manicurist, landscape worker, make up artist, travel guide, bar tender, taxidermist or animal trainer.  (See here for a list of 102 occupations to which some or all states limit entry.)

At the same time, this anti-liberty "synergy" between the criminal law and occupational licensing is just one negative facet of a legal regime that grants states nearly limitless authority to prevent individuals from pursue their chosen vocation.  As Milton Friedman explained more than half a century ago, many such statutes infringe the basic human freedoms to engage in voluntary wealth-creating transactions, while simultaneously protecting incumbent producers from competition, reducing output and increasing prices. See Milton Friedman, Capitalism and Freedom 137-160 (1962).  Thus, Friedman contended, society should adopt a very heavy presumption against such regulation.  See id. at 144.   These conclusions, of course, followed ineluctably from basic economic science. Even some progressives, including the Obama Administration, have finally conceded Friedman's point that occupational licensing wreaks significant harm on the economy.  Unfortunately these same progressives still maintain their ideological and anti-scientific support for other intrusive regulations of labor markets, thereby weakening the sort of intellectual milieu necessary to true reform.  (Indeed, the same National Employment Project supports the anti-liberty and anti-wealth measure known as the "minimum wage.")

The National Employment Law Project identifies a serious problem, namely, numerous unjustified abridgments of personal liberty.  These results come as no surprise to those who have long internalized Friedman's lessons. However, Friedman also provided the best solution to this problem, viz., a wholesale embrace of economic science and the resulting elimination of the vast majority of occupational licensing statutes, period.  Nibbling around the edges by altering the interaction between the criminal law and unjustified occupational licensing is at best, a half-measure.