The Right to Work

How occupational licensing laws restrict liberty

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


Editor's Note: We invite comments and request that they be civil and on-topic. We do not moderate or assume any responsibility for comments, which are owned by the readers who post them. Comments do not represent the views of or Reason Foundation. We reserve the right to delete any comment for any reason at any time. Report abuses.

  • James Bond||

    Good thing I have a license to ... you know.

  • Sterling Archer||

    Don't leave us hanging. A license to what?

  • Dan||

    Sterling - check the poster's name. 00 agents such as 007 had a Licence to Kill.

  • jester||

    If it weren't for a pilot's license, airlines would allow anyone to fly a multimillion-dollar machine and expose it to millions of dollars of liability should something go wrong...and you know it.

  • ||

    And everyone would be running to out of work butchers to get brain surgery too.

  • Pilt Down Man||

    Or hiring MNG to represent you in a court of law.

  • The Gobbler||

    Why would anyone want legal representation from a Shit Facktory?

  • ||

    Because it's all they can afford?

    If a real lawyer charged $300 an hour, and MNG charged $50 an hour, MNG would beat the lawyer in many contracts since many places go with the lowest bidder, not the most quality.

  • Doc Merlin||

    And people would be better off, MNG representing you is better than no one.

  • ||

    TrickyVic, its funny, but lots of people take what the lawyer charges as a proxy for how good the lawyer is.

    During my brief stint as an independent attorney, I got almost no work when I was seriously underbidding my competition. When I raised my rates, lo and behold, I got work.

  • RM||

    Except that private individuals can own planes and... nevermind, it's useless.

  • Lord Jubjub||

    You do realize that was carefully crafted sarcasm. . .

  • MR||

    John! You forgot all of Chicago's oppressive economic regulations! Want to sell oranges, tube socks, or water bottles? Go for it! But flowers?! No way!

  • jester||

    That's because flowers are arranged. Like Feng Shui. If you bring to beloved flowers that are arranged in the wrong could have serious consequences. And as a man, you wouldn't understand why. You need the protection licensing brings. How else would you know?

  • ||

    The bill to exempt yoga from regulation has been signed. Free at last! Free at last!

  • LibertyBill||

    As Ron White once said;

    "You cant fix stupid"

  • JMS||

    The reason why compulsory licensing laws are particularly stupid is that, if someone isn't qualified and claims to be, if they do a bad job they're held to the standard of a qualified person.

    If the criminal law is to get involved at all, it should just make it illegal to hold yourself out as qualified when you're not intentionally - a kind of fraud. If I know someone hasn't passed a bar exam but hire them anyway, what business of Government is it?

  • JMS||

    (When I said "held to the standard of a qualified person", that's in the tort context.

    Tort and Contract - the two main branches of private law - achieve far fairer results than public criminal law... at least when people don't get the idea that Tort should be used to punish rather than merely compensate)

  • ||

    Ya but we can't seem to stop stupid politicians from making stupid laws to protect stupid people from other stupid people

  • ||

    Oh ya and lets not forget licensing fees"

  • Steve||

    Bingo. In addition to the money to be had in collecting fees, let's not forget the resume/ego padding that being "on the board" means for a lot of these folks.

  • ||

    Texas, god bless it, has managed to pretty much hold the line on refusing to create new licensed occupations for the last several legislative sessions.

  • Doc Merlin||

    Instead they administratively required computer repair people to get private eye licenses. (Not that anyone actually pays attention).

  • Da gubmint||

    Alright, I'm going to have to ask all of you to show your licenses for blog commenting.

  • ||

    All of you obviously don't care about people. Your "freedom" talk is nothing more than a front for big corporations and Hitler. You'll pay your fee and like it!

  • Soonerliberty||

    Is there a Nazi license? What about an anti-Semite, conspiracy nut license? What would be the requirements of such a license?

    Better yet, is there a license to become a liberal? How do I get it? I mean besides turning my brain off.

  • Sterling Archer||

    I need to see your license to ask for licenses. Don't question me, I'm licensed.

  • ||

    um, sir, Ive been waiting here for 3 hours, can I please just get my anti-Semite homosexual license now?

  • ||

    Why isn't there a pithy alt-text on the picture of the yoga chick?

  • Joshua||

    because it's a syndicated article.

  • ||

    We should stop our Nanny-State licensing of forensic pathologists too. The more competition the better it is for consumers. Oh wait, three articles down Reason advocates for stricter licensing of forensic pathologists.

    Wait -- you mean we should license some occupations but not others? What a novel idea. Now, if only there were some fool proof way to decide which occupations are in need of regulation and which aren't.

  • jester||

    'anyone hired to do an autopsy by one of the state's counties'

    I see your point, but in this case, the state was hiring a quack, someone, any ordinary individual would have fired a long time ago, except not the state because it was getting a stellar record of succesful prosecutions from his dubious work.

    I think Mr. Balko has spoken in the past for allowing the defense's team to do their own post-mortem. Mr. Balko seems to like the licensing ruling because it will effectively remove this obvious quack that has been sheltered from scrutiny by a layer of government. Essential licensing is fighting fire with fire an acceptable replacement to cronyism instead of a ringing endorsement of non-free market principles.

  • Zenmaster||

    That's easy, employers are free to require whatever credentials they wish from those they hire since, in hiring that individual, the employer's reputation is put on the line as well. Self regulation is for the benefit of all.

  • ||

    How about a restrictive license for politicians? You must be able to recite simple laws of economics and balance a checkbook and keep your hands off the underpants of the help.

    I'd never work!

  • jester||

    illy William, there are no simple laws of economics. There is only econometrics and only experts in that field really understand them. The rest of us, sadly, need to trust the experts.

    When we mention words like markets or economic laws, etc., we're only putting our ignorance on a stage for all the experts and those smart enough to know to defer to the experts to laugh at.

    Politicians need to be completely ignorant of econometrics lest they should really screw up our country.

  • ||

    ""lest they should really screw up our country.""

    Didn't that ship sail decades ago?

  • ||

    Actually, I should be careful with that. It wasn't that long ago some people where saying who could do worse than Bush. Then we got an anwser.

  • Some Guy||

    Eh. I'd still take Obama over Bush. We'd still have multi-trillion dollar deficits with nothing to show for them, but we'd also be at war with Iran.

    Maybe this sucker's rally would never have happened. That could be good or bad depending on your perspective.

  • ||

    keep your hands off the underpants of the help.

    New rule: assistants are no longer allowed to wear underwear. Everybody's a winner!

  • ||

    ""In Virginia, you need a license to be a yoga instructor""

    That was never the case. They were trying to regulate teacher trainers, not teachers themselves. Silly just the same.

  • ||

    I don't have a problem with these licensing laws when they are legitimately a public safety/health issue...which none of these are.

  • IceTrey||

    The only licenses the state should issue are to conduct business in the sate. The only qualification is that the licensee have insurance. Then they would be free to receive a certification of competence in their chosen field from a private industry organization or not. The consumer could then decide to go to a certified practitioner or not.

  • ||

    """The only qualification is that the licensee have insurance.""

    Because malpractice insurance has done wonders in the medical field?

  • IceTrey||

    The problem is frivolous lawsuits and ridiculous monetary awards, not the insurance per se.

  • jester||

    I get a kick out of people who insist on certification of their alternative remedies being organic. Instead they should be asking the government to certify their demands as ironic.

  • ||

    Licensing is for Leninists. Not for free people.

  • Rob Molecule||

    You actually need a professional wrestling license in some states. In some it requires little more than filling out a form and paying a fee. In NY, you need references, finger prints and a medical exam. You also need a license to be a wrestling manager, an announcer and a referee. Although, unless you're the WWE, the state has their own refs and will force the promoter to use the ones they send them.

    Note: This may have changed in the past 10 years.

  • T||

    I always laugh at these discussions. Engineers have licensing boards and all that good stuff. The vast majority of practicing engineers do not have licenses. In the minds of many engineers, all a license does is make you personally liable. Yet somehow, the world goes on and things continue to get built and things mostly work.

    Hmm. Maybe licensing isn't all that necessary for the public good after all.

  • MJ||

    The vast majority of engineers don't do work that requires being licensed, or at least doesn't require more than the principals to be licensed.

  • ||

    Essentially the only engineering work that requires licenses are the big juicy government contracts and things the state decides are mandatory when you want to get something built.

    Oh, engineers I know don't think the license makes the engineer liable. It's more of a get out of jail free card unless another engineer testifies against you. But like everything else, once that person throws you under the bus, the rest of the fellas start paying attention and the whistle blower can start looking for another occupation.

  • ||

    As you can see, I have one of those licenses.

    Consider what a license means: It means you are supposed to know the limits of your expertise and that you will be held liable if you screw up. In most endeavors, licensing should not be used to limit practitioners UNLESS public safety depends upon the licensed individual doing their job correctly. In this respect, I agree with Stossel that licensing florists is silly and counterproductive.

    If you get right down to it, anybody can design a bridge. The issue is whether that person can design a bridge that won't fall down under normal conditions. People's lives and livelihoods depend upon that bridge.

    The education and experience required to earn certification of this, or any other sort, is not something you can get overnight. I'm licensed in other areas as well. Again, the point of these licenses is to ensure that I can legitimately be held responsible for errors that may jeopardize public safety.

    Most people can fly an airplane with just a few hours of training. However, if anything goes awry, most would be quite flummoxed. Licensed pilots are trained to spot these situations quickly, act immediately, and to keep people on the ground and in the air safe.

    Feel free to practice engineering without a license. I did so for many years. However, if you expect to be put in charge of designing an oil refinery, a public highway, a school building, an electrical substation, or even a sewer treatment plant you're going to need certification to prove that you at least have the combination of experience, education, and training to do this without killing somebody.

  • joeschmo||

    except for those runaway Toyotas ....

  • Anjison||

    I'ma thinkin commentors here'bouts oughta be needin to have themselves a lisense insed of gonin on an on takin vantage of the [non]poetic type.

  • Brett Knoss||

    "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."

    This is rediculus, it used to be common for people who had no understanding of the law to go to a learned person in the community for representation even if they were not a lawyer. People can represent themselves so why can't people who can't afford a lawyer get somone to write a letter on their behalf.

  • Fist of Etiquette||

    This just in: Stossel wants to license parents. (Read: mommy issues)

  • ||

    Not a half bad idea.

  • Fist of Etiquette||

    And, if you have to have a license to drive to the test-taking location.

  • Fist of Etiquette||

    I aced the Georgia O'Keeffe portion of my florist test.

  • Fist of Etiquette||

    Mike Rome knows that the wrong arrangement of flowers can explode on you like a son of a bitch.

  • Fist of Etiquette||

    "I have one of the biggest coolers in New Orleans."

    (She's coming on to you, John.)

  • Fist of Etiquette||

    Licensing to protect your precious memories!

  • Fist of Etiquette||

    "The test is not that difficult." So the point of it is again what?

  • Fist of Etiquette||

    Mike Rome is making sure no one opens up a bouquet and gets a faceful of spider eggs. (Or whatever that urban myth is.)

  • Fist of Etiquette||

    Damn, Mike is taking it on the chin.

  • Fist of Etiquette||

    Uh-oh, Chip is lurking again.

  • Fist of Etiquette||

    Stop, John! Don't apologize, don't give any ground!

  • Fist of Etiquette||

    Just wait until her incorrect use of feng shui kills a guy. Then we'll see how that unlicensed interior designer worked out for you.

  • Fist of Etiquette||

    Mustache threading, on the other hand...

  • Fist of Etiquette||

    "I hate what you do, but I will defend with my life your right to defend me in court."

  • Fist of Etiquette||

    Look at Paterson there. HE'S EVIL!

  • Fist of Etiquette||

    Supermarkets will be the Wal-Marts of liquor sales. Mom and pop moonshiners will be forced out.

  • Fist of Etiquette||

    Floridians are cheap drunks, let's just lay it out on the table. (Explains the Buchanan votes.)

  • Fist of Etiquette||

    I don't trust young Castro via satellite.

  • Fist of Etiquette||

    Don't try playing the law enforcement card with Stossel.

  • Fist of Etiquette||

    Let's see, he's fighting the justice system in the justice system. Wonder how that'll turn out.

  • Fist of Etiquette||

    Ha, his signature was well worth the however the fuck much it cost keeping Price in jail for six months.

  • Fist of Etiquette||

    Napolitano should have his own show!

  • Fist of Etiquette||

    I didn't know Stossel used to be Freddie Mercury.

  • Fist of Etiquette||

    You still had a television with tubes years later?

  • Fist of Etiquette||

    John's audience think electrocutions are a laugh riot.

  • Some Guy||

    I think a good standard for whether or not a profession should need to be licensed is that you should have to be able to come up with a scenario where some unlicensed person doing that job would likely result in serious injury or death -- without being laughed at.

  • Patriot Henry||

    "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."

    Is it just me or is it bloody obvious that we need protection from people who practice law WITH a license?

  • ||

    The license doesn't magically bestow competence. When's the last time an unlicensed doctor amputated the wrong limb?

  • ||

    C'mon - put yourself in the place of the owner of that airplane. Would you let just anyone fly it? Of course not. And that's why the airlines put pilots through rigoris training beyond what's needed for an FAA license.

  • Flemming||

    Great column Mr. Stossel. Let's do away with all quality control. . .across the board. Who needs it?

    Beneficent Freedom And Competition will protect us from everything.

    I mean, do we really need the FDA? Obviously Freedom And Competition will lead consumers to the right medicines before too many of our family members and friends are poisoned to death by unfettered OTC Drug pushing. What's a few hundred thousand lives in the name of Free Markets anyway? And come on, does it really matter if that gallon of milk you buy every week is full of melamine? As long as there is Competition!

    I'm sure the paradisiac Free Market System will weed out all the bad apples before too many lives are taken by unlicensed "surgeons" doing unnecessary operations for a quick buck too. Who needs medical licenses when we can have Freedom And Competition?

    The Invisible Hand. . .yeah, that's the ticket. Free Markets.

    And pesky licensing for lawyers? What a pain that is! Great point there Mr. Stossel!

    I mean, what a burden it is to go through law school and become certified before you can legally present yourself as a capable representative for someone whose very life may be on the line in the trial you wish to litigate for them.

    Darn Government Bureaucrats! Always making it hard for the rest of us. Who are they to take away our Freedom To Charge People For Legal Services We Are Absolutely Incapable Of Performing?

    Free Markets For Life!

  • ||

    Idiot. John's not advocating any of that. There's a huge difference between having enforeceable safety standards in an industry and limiting who gets to compete. Restaurants are strictly inspected, yet there is no requirement to be a 'licensed restaurateur' before you can open one. Why do barbers have to be licensed, other than to control the number of barbers and keep prices of haircuts artificially high? After all, a bad haircut will grow out in a couple of weeks and bad barbers will go out of business all on their own.

  • ||

    The problem is a runaway addiction to legislation and regulatory controls. Licensing pilots or doctors can be justified relatively easily, and when those professions that involve possible risks to the public in cases of shoddy performance were the main ones licensed, there was more sense to the practice. Now, a florist has to take an expensive test and (I witnessed recently) a guy selling grilled hotdogs in a rock concert parking lot gets shaken down by the cops because he had no small business license. The state may have an interest in, say, compelling a midwife to have training in delivering babies, but what interest does it have, other than its own bureaucratic expansion, for compelling a man trying to earn a few honest bucks to pay a fee for the right?

    Or I guess it would now be a privilege you have to pay for.

  • ||

    I mean, do we really need the FDA? Obviously Freedom And Competition will lead consumers to the right medicines before too many of our family members and friends are poisoned to death by unfettered OTC Drug pushing.

    How many hundreds of thousands of sick people have died while waiting for the FDA to take up to TEN YEARS to approve new medications?

  • Give Me a Break!||

    I love Stossel. My only complaint is that I can't read anything written by him without hearing it in his voice.

    That's probably my fault.

  • ||

    Since healthcare is such a current topic, why not a discussion on how licensing affects the cost of healthcare? Example: Hospitals need a 'Certificate of Need' from the state before they can open, or even add a bed. These Certificates are routinely opposed by competitor hospitals all under the cover of 'reducing and controling costs'. Since when has reducing the supply of anything ever reduced the cost? Eliminate all these artificial constraints to free trade and you'll see costs truly drop.

  • ||

    It's about time we gave up on the term capitalism and adopted a more accurate reference for a competitive market system. That term itself might be just fine. Capital-ism as it now functions essentially rewards and upholds bureaucratic infiltration and cronyism of the exact kind Stossel is describing. Capitalism today is economics run from the capital (and also the capitol, so often), and wipes out the benefits of lower prices and enhanced quality that actual competition fosters. Down with capitalism, competitive markets forever!

  • ||

    First of all, I don't know that Angie's List is a good example in this context considering that they are now acting as if they are gov't agency by requiring the contractors they list to be licensed--no more reports allowed about contractors who are not licensed.

    I have had work done by a retired contractor who did excellent work for a lot less than the fancy schmancy handyman companies that were "licensed." His work was probably better too because he had more experience.

    I'd also like to comment about licensing for massage therapists. Now that massage therapists are churned out special schools I can't get a decent massage.

    What used to be a fairly simple thing of having my muscles rolfed has turned into "detoxification" and all sorts of other bull that isn't even true.

    These idiots find a spot that hurts and they concentrate on it as if pressing on it and squeezing it is going to "release the toxins" when what it really does is make it hurt.

    So, no more relaxing massages--just a lot of pseudo-scientific bull.

    I have to keep my eyes from rolling out of my head when a therapist reminds me to "drink lots of water" to flush away all the "toxins" that she has released from torturing my poor muscles that just wanted a nice rolfing.


  • Henry||


  • Fist of Etiquette||

    Such as that one.

  • Trig||

    Way to go, John! Here's another one for you: why does there need to be a Food and Drug administration? Americans don't need the Nanny-State testing their drugs for them, when the free market would suffice! If a drug company make a drug that kill thousands of people, the rest of us will know not the take that drug. Let the free market work!

    Thomas Jefferson didn't worry about government oversight of medication--so why should we?

  • louboutinvips||

    Napolitano should have his own show!

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    Thanks for posting this. Very nice recap of some of the key points in my talk. I hope you and your readers find it useful! Thanks again

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  • Matt Sunshyne||

    Thank goodness for Obama passing the reform bill for jobs and wall st. We ALL have a right to work if we are capable

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    Unlike the First Amendment, which limited the actions of Congress and by extension had to be incorporated, the Second Amendment stated that RKBA was not to be infringed, and lacked detail as to by whom, and therefore applied to all government. By its very language it was already applicable to the states!

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  • Dentist in Palm Coast||

    Everyone does have the right to work, but not everyone wants to. You could also say that people have the right to remain silent, they don't always.

  • Ross Taylor||

    Matt, falling isn’t really the problem, but getting up is… Looks like you’ll be trying again soon:)

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  • ||

    The license doesn't magically bestow competence. When's the last time an unlicensed doctor amputated the wrong limb..
    Fat People

  • ||

    Its as simpleBigbootyy

  • Clif Haley||

    These licenses are just money grabs for local governments.

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