Business Licenses Are Still an Effective Tool—For Crushing Entrepreneurship

Red tape remains a powerful deterrent to starting businesses and creating jobs.


Serial failed businessman Samuel Clemens might have a lesson or two to offer to his hometown of Hannibal, Missouri. Thwarted in his riverboat-piloting career, unsuccessful as a miner, and disappointed (to put it mildly) in his investments in an automated typesetting machine, "Mark Twain" could have told officials in his old stomping ground that making a living is hard enough without government officials demanding that entrepreneurs come checkbooks in hand to beg, "mother, may I?" for permission to do business.

Yet, under pressure from the state, Hannibal officials are doing exactly that, even as evidence grows that licenses and regulations are the biggest barriers faced by small firms—especially the startups that create jobs and fuel prosperity.

A November 8 article in the Hannibal Courier-Post notes that "City Hall is engaging in its annual saber-rattling campaign against businesses operating in the city of Hannibal without an up-to-date business license." Annual it is, indeed. A similar article ran in 2014, and another appeared a year before that.

Ironically, while I couldn't find a similar piece in 2012, the Courier-Post did publish a column citing a survey of small business owners in which "one-third of respondents mentioned regulation or licensing in their comments, with most offering strong criticisms of their state's regulatory environment."

I'd like to think Samuel Clemens would have connected those dots.

In fact, licensing and red tape is a serious concern for small businesses. Last month, respondents to an annual National Federation of Independent Business (NFIB) survey told the organization that the single most important problem they faced involved government regulations and red tape. In July, "regulatory burdens" ranked among the "three most significant challenges to the future growth and survival of your business" named by respondents to a similar Small Business Association survey.

Likewise, the Small Business Friendliness Survey finds that small business owners are "frequently frustrated by unnecessary bureaucratic obstacles." The survey found that "Professionals who weren't required to have a license judged their cities and states in a more favorable light" than those subject to licensing requirements (unsurprisingly, those subject to "very easy" licensing requirements share that sense of satisfaction).

This matters because owning a small businesses means food on the table and independence for millions of people. The higher the barriers to getting a business started, the harder it is for people to feed themselves and take charge of their economic lives.

Startup businesses, in particular, are disproportionate creators of jobs—"almost 20 percent of gross job creation," according to a 2010 paper. Older businesses, large and small, build prosperity, but young businesses put large numbers of people to work. So it was disconcerting when entrepreneurship went into a multi-year nosedive, with the proportion of U.S. firms less than one year old falling by nearly half between 1978 and 2011.

That plunge was interrupted last year as startups surged again in a sign—all-too-rare these days—of real economic health. But with job growth still sputtering, why chance crushing that fragile rebirth under regulatory dead weight and bureaucratic demands that entrepreneurs brave enough to put everything on the line to start a new business? It's not like we're unaware that they don't like those burdens—we've already asked, and they've answered.

Echoing armies of economists on the issue of occupational licensing, the White House pointed out this summer that "most research does not find that licensing improves quality or public health and safety." That's not to say that such rules don't have an impact since, the report added, "By one estimate, licensing restrictions cost millions of jobs nationwide and raise consumer expenses by over one hundred billion dollars."

So, is Hannibal, Missouri backing off its efforts against unlicensed businesses? I asked City Manager Jeff LaGarce exactly that. Hannibal does not plan to eliminate business licenses he told me—and he compared the city's enforcement of the "negligible" charges involved to Reason's subscription fee: "if readers of your magazine failed to renew their subscriptions, it's likely their subscriptions would be terminated."

That seems an odd comparison since you don't need a Reason subscription to read without fear of arrest, but you do need a license in Hannibal to run your business with risking unpleasant visits from the cops.

LaGarce also pointed out that Hannibal is only the designated enforcer of state-wide red tape.

"Today, at renewal, we must obtain affidavits from business owners that they are not illegal aliens; nor do they employ illegals.  While justifiable, this is State-mandated red tape that delegates this statewide law to municipalities.  The MO Legislature could have just as easily had their own Department of Revenue do this, or state licensing offices, etc., but they chose cities for this role.  We also require an affidavit of 'No Sales taxes Due' to the State of Missouri; which is another State mandate required of cities.  And several years ago, the State enacted a law requiring every business having 5 or more employees to carry workers' compensation insurance.  Guess who was charged with enforcement of those provisions?  And naturally, at the point of municipal business licensing.  Eliminate the State requirements, and it's a pretty easy process for businesses."

But the state requirements are in place, and likely a higher barrier to compliance than the licensing fees imposed by cities like Hannibal. Unwilling or unable to jump through the hoops required to ask the government for permission to operate, some people are driven out of business—or forced to operate illegally, without official paperwork.

That's a problem that small business people across the country could tell you extends well beyond Hannibal, or even the state of Missouri.

Too bad Samuel Clemens isn't still around to eloquently explain why entrepreneurs don't need the added hassle of regulatory nonsense when they're trying to make a living.

NEXT: Man Slams Doors on Cops Who Had No Warrant, Cops Break Door Down, Kill Him

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.

  1. It’s amazing how many people don’t bat an eye at the idea that engaging in any given endeavor without a license is wrong. For many, business not bureaucracy is an enemy in our midst that must be reined in lest we all succumb to their oppressive practices.

    One American dream is to be your own boss, but without ever having reached that point, the point of operating on already thin margins and then dealing with arbitrary operating costs piled on by greedy governments, people don’t understand the real obstacles to that dream.

    1. Lots of industries lobby for more compliance hurdles to keep out competitors. Car dealers are a big one. In many states, including my own, you have to have a dealer’s license to legally make any profit on the sale of a motortr vehicle. To get the license, you have to have an inspected commercial dealership, with posted hours from at least 10-4, five days per week. In addition to a long term lease, or own the RE. And that is in addition to a licensing and binding process that takes months and costs thousands of dollars.

      The mortgage industry is very similar. Mortgage brokerages were devastated by ‘reforms’ lobbied for by the banks that were actually partially responsible for the mortgage crisis. All the new rules protect them.

      1. I’m making $86 an hour working from home. I was shocked when my neighbour told me she was averaging $95 but I see how it works now.I feel so much freedom now that I’m my own boss.go to this site home tab for more detai….

  2. Clemens should have invested in Linotype.

  3. Realistic estimates put black market businesses at about 40% of all business. The Feds say 10%. If they didn’t say that America would be Italy.

    1. [citation needed]

  4. One of the areas ripe for a technological revolution is the money transfer industry. But it’s literally being strangled in the crib. Anything that’s considered “money transmission”, a broadly defined activity involving any amount of value with completely unclear limitations, must be registered with the federal Dept of Treasury and institute expensive compliance procedures to prevent money laundering and report suspicious activities, more vaguely defined standards.

    Federal registration makes it incredibly difficult to get bank accounts (because you’re a compliance headache for the bank, too). There’s also a risk of an audit that will ding you for insufficient “internal controls”.

    On top of that, money transmission is also regulated on the state level by most states, with expensive bonding, a relatively high minimum valuation for the company, an application fee in the thousands of dollars for each state, expensive intrusive background checks for anybody who might get close to customer funds as well as large shareholders (and each state only accepts reports from investigators licensed in their state), etc.

    The result? An enormous gray and black market just to move money around efficiently.

  5. Here’s my personal account of how business licenses stifle entrepreneurship: http://www.fortheloveofliberty…..ifles.html

  6. Im making over $9k a month working part time. I kept hearing other people tell me how much money they can make online so I decided to look into it. Well, it was all true and has totally changed my life. This is what I do,


  7. Such a basic idea, yet so easily overlooked by far too many people. Anti-corporatists should especially take note, because small businesses tend not to be corporations.

  8. Google pay 97$ per hour my last pay check was $8500 working 1o hours a week online. My younger brother friend has been averaging 12k for months now and he works about 22 hours a week. I cant believe how easy it was once I tried it out.
    This is wha- I do…… ??????

  9. Google pay 97$ per hour my last pay check was $8500 working 1o hours a week online. My younger brother friend has been averaging 12k for months now and he works about 22 hours a week. I cant believe how easy it was once I tried it out.
    This is wha- I do…… ??????

Please to post comments

Comments are closed.