Government Licensing: How Did It All Get Started?


The tale you are about to read is a thinly disguised history of certain developments in our country. The author apologizes to mechanics for using their name by saying "May it never happen to you."

In a certain country, in a certain century, people depended on cars for their livelihood and pleasure. Occasionally, their cars would break down. Some people would attempt to repair their own cars, an exceedingly risky attempt in view of the complexity of cars and the potentially fatal consequences of a mistake.

Most people therefore put their cars in the hands of mechanics for repairs and check-ups. The only problem was that anyone could call himself a mechanic and hang out a shingle. Among these were some who were incompetent and indeed even unscrupulous. The most competent and ethical mechanics, fearing their reputations would be hurt, formed the American Mechanical Association (AMA).

The purpose of the association was to protect the public by upgrading the quality of mechanical service. To this end, the association issued certificates to all mechanics who met certain standards, including graduation from a mechanical school.

This solution was not completely satisfactory, however, for some mechanics ignored the AMA and continued to practice without a certificate. Most went out of business, of course, but others attracted and held their customers even without a certificate.

The AMA, fearing people were gullible and ignorant of the protection offered by a certificate, decided to take more powerful measures. Accordingly, they set about to convince the state legislatures that licensing was necessary to protect the people from unqualified mechanics. The risks of faulty repairs were so obvious that legislation was easily passed. The states granted licenses to qualified practitioners and prosecuted those who practiced mechanics without a license, in accordance with AMA guidelines.

Now the AMA had real power in its crusade to upgrade the standards of mechanical practice. Of course, it sometimes happened that a small isolated town would surreptitiously use the services of an unlicensed mechanic, but legislation was effective in eliminating those "mechanics." The small town people gladly paid to have their cars towed to the city for repairs by qualified mechanics.

It was somewhat more difficult to control people who wanted to make their own repairs, but the AMA succeeded by waging a vigorous educational campaign. They explained how the workings of a car were mysterious and complex, and that only a mechanic with long education and experience could hope to understand it all. Even apparently simple repairs were potentially risky—to straighten a dented fender might (somehow, in rare instances) throw the wheels out of alignment.

All these maneuvers tended to upgrade the quality of mechanical practice. Everyone benefited—the people, who were practically guaranteed top quality services, and the mechanics, who were practically guaranteed high demand for those services.

However, one loophole remained. The demand for licensed mechanics had caused a proliferation of mechanical schools. Sad to say, some of these schools were not as good as others, and almost anyone could be admitted. This obviously lowered standards of mechanical practice. The AMA thus began its policy of accrediting mechanical schools. With some impetus provided from the scandalous Lexner report, the legislature added graduation from an AMA-approved mechanical school to the requirements for licensure. And with this precedent, another piece of protective legislation was easily passed—the requirement for an apprenticeship in an AMA-approved garage. (This also gave the AMA a bigger voice in the garage business, which it did not object to.)

The AMA had triumphed again in its crusade to protect the people from inept mechanical practice. That this process decreased the supply of mechanics and increased the demand for their own services was merely a happy coincidence.

Things continued in this light for some years, when suddenly the country found itself at war. Mechanical manpower and advanced mechanical knowledge were crucial to the war effort. Soon government money began to trickle and then pour into the mechanical schools. The amount of basic mechanical research took a sudden upturn. Professors of Mechanics took advantage of the funds available to do more and more specialized work, sometimes to the neglect of their teaching duties. Students soon sensed that the real excitement of mechanics was no longer in general mechanics. They began to specialize in brakes, transmission, etc., offering exceedingly skillful service to the public (for a price commensurate with their quality, and in areas populous and wealthy enough to support them). The prestige of general mechanics took a nosedive, even while the public sentimentally yearned for the good old days of the general mechanic.

Meanwhile, other developments kept pace, notably the professionalization of gas station attendants. The ordinary person, deeply impressed by the mysteries of his car, did not know enough to choose gasoline, oil, or antifreeze wisely. Thus mechanics prescribed the necessary blends, and service station attendants dispensed them with due professional care.* The American Pumpers Association was formed, like the AMA, to ensure high standards and outlaw any unauthorized gas station attendants. The association developed certain other standards as well, such as the principle that advertising prices was unethical.

The government, awakening at this time to the immense complexity and potential abuses in the gas and oil industry, formed the Gas and Oil Administration (GOA). Its purpose was to ensure high standards of gas and oil as well as to screen new products, especially in view of rising concern with pollutionogenic substances. This admirable purpose should not be obscured by the fact that the big oil companies could exert considerable political pressure on the GOA for variances and privileges, while the public rested on the blithe assumption that the agency was created to serve them. Only a few suspicious souls possessed the necessary energy to sue the GOA for information. Thus the GOA and the companies continued to thrive as a sort of mutual benefit society.

(An independent Customer's Union (CU) had arisen to test products, supported by dues from consumers of the products. CU was so well received by the public that similar testing groups arose, all competing with each other to supply accurate and useful information to the consumer. Some years later the GOA charged that CU wielded too much influence and infringed on the GOA's mandate, and CU organizations were disbanded by government order.)

In other developments, the Bill-Hurton Act was passed, encouraging the construction of new garages. Many garages sprang up, only to find themselves a few years later with empty stalls. The overhead cost was still, however, passed on to the customer.

More years passed, and public sentiment began to grow that something was wrong with the state of mechanical practice. People were disgusted with the high price of mechanical care and the difficulty of finding a mechanic. Rumblings began to be heard that mechanical care was a "right." Mechanics dismissed this sentiment as irrational and preposterous (forgetting that their own secure position was based on the "right" to license competition out of the business). So the landmark legislation Mechanicare was passed. At last, balance was restored!

However, as time marched on, demand for mechanical care accelerated beyond all previous estimates. Mechanics were forced to spend much time doing minor jobs such as touching up nicks in the paint job, and were often sent against their will to outlying areas with a shortage of mechanics. For some inexplicable reason, mechanics was no longer a job children dreamed about. Finally, the shortage of mechanics was so acute that the government was forced to draft people into mechanical school.

Needless to say, the draftees' dedication to their studies was not all it should be. And so, our story closes with the government searching for legislation to correct that situation. Strangely, no one thought of how things might have been without all the layers of legislation. But then, if all the layers of legislation were peeled away, that would have put a lot of people out of business (everyone who depended on the government—including the legislators).

And that would have been inconceivable.

Ann Turner graduated from Stanford University and received her M.D. from the Stanford School of Medicine. She is in private practice in Palo Alto, California, specializing in psychiatry and biofeedback.

*Some highly popular additives, going by such names as Horse power, were illegal and not available at gas stations. In spite of this, the black market thrived. Finally the government abandoned its attempts to control usage and dispensed a good substitute in its own approved centers. A fringe benefit was the careful records kept on purchasers (used only for research purposes, of course).