Occupational Licensing

Licensing Isn't Necessary To Protect People From Incompetent, Untrained, or Fraudulent Professionals

Sign language interpreters say licensing is needed to protect deaf people from scammers, but there's no evidence of a market failure.


Alon Skuy/Polaris/Newscom

Two weeks ago, I wrote about a nascent effort at occupational licensing reform in Wisconsin, where Republicans say they intend to use the 2017 legislative session to review state laws that hold the economy back.

In conjunction with that announcement, the Wisconsin Institute for Law and Liberty, a Milwaukee-based free market think tank, published a report on six occupational licenses that should be repealed or reformed. The report highlighted licenses for dietitians, landscape architects, private detectives, private security persons, sign language interpreters, and interior designers.

None of these licenses do much, if anything, in the way of protecting the public's health and safety, I wrote at the time. Since that's the only reason government should require a permission slip before someone can engage in an otherwise legal activity, it makes sense that Wisconsin lawmakers should take a skeptical look at why those licenses are required.

The deaf community in Wisconsin, though, has been quick to criticize the idea of repealing the state license for sign language interpreters.

I've received more than a dozen emails from people in Wisconsin (and elsewhere) arguing that the state license for sign language interpreters is necessary and proper. I checked with the Wisconsin Institute for Law and Liberty and found out that they, too, have been besieged by a similar outpouring of opposition since publishing their report.

Here's a portion of the message I received from one reader, Karen Beth Staller, who says she's been a sign language interpreter for 30 years:

While it's much more expensive and time-consuming to engage in the profession than it was when I started, it's time and money well-spent. We need degrees, licenses, registrations and background checks, as well as continuing education requirements to keep up with developments in linguistics and interpreting practices, as well as training interpreting in specialized settings.

As a freelance interpreter, one might go into a college classroom for a class on legal ethics or microbiology; a doctor's office for a cold or a cancer diagnosis; an operating room for open heart surgery; a courtroom for a divorce hearing or a murder trial; a factory floor for a job interview or forklift training; an emergency room for a broken toe or a shooting; a bank to liquidate a deceased relative's accounts; a funeral home to make final arrangements; and hundreds of other settings for myriad other reasons…

…This may seem simple to someone who has—as a hearing person—dealt with these interactions all your life, but when there's a language difference, it becomes more complicated…

…To become an interpreter, one needs much more than just a knowledge of sign language, but without background checks, licenses and educational requirements, anyone would be able to call themselves an interpreter."

I think Staller made the strongest argument out of the messages I received, but there were many variations of the "if we don't have a license, anyone can call themselves an interpreter and cause confusion or outright harm to the deaf community." Several of those messages included references to the 2013 incident in which a man named Thamsanqa Jantjie ended up on stage with President Barack Obama during Nelson Mandela's memorial service in South Africa. Jantjie clearly had no idea what he was doing and was obviously not a trained sign language interpreter, to say the least.

That Jantjie was apparently able to fake his credentials well enough to get on stage at such a high-profile event certainly is shocking, but it's not a good argument for licensing. It speaks more to a lack of adequate diligence by the organizers of that single event, not to a broader problem in the market for sign language interpreters. In other words, just because South Africa does not require licenses for sign language interpreters, it doesn't mean that a licensing scheme would have stopped Jantije from getting on stage.

No one is arguing that deaf people do not have a right to have skilled, accurate interpreters. The question, then, is not whether the deaf community in Wisconsin should have access to competent sign language interpreters, but whether a state licensing scheme is the best way to ensure that they do.

"The importance of sign language interpreters' work is not at issue," says Lee McGrath, legislative counsel for the Institute for Justice, a libertarian law firm that frequently challenges restrictive and onerous state licensing rules. "The real question is whether there is some permanent market failure that courts, hospitals, or businesses are unable to determine whether an interpreter is competent."

Most states don't require a government-issued permission slip for sign language interpreters. Until 2010, Wisconsin didn't, either. Even if fake sign language interpreters are a legitimate concern in Wisconsin, it's not clear that a market failure exists because there isn't a scourge of poor sign language interpretation affecting other part of the country. It would seem there must be other mechanisms to prevent Jantjie-style scam artists from ruining the lives of deaf people.

There's actually lots of them. Private certifications are probably the best way to accomplish the goals of licensing (efficacy and competency in a professional workforce) without getting the government involved. There's a national organization, the Registry for Interpreters of the Deaf, already offering this certification.

As the website for RID's Ohio Chapter informs: "While Ohio does not yet require a degree or certification to interpret outside of the K-12 classroom setting, to gain competence in interpreting, one should consider enrolling in an Interpreter Training Program."

Translation: If you want to get a job being a sign language interpreter in Ohio, get certified because no one will hire you otherwise.

There are other market-based regulatory mechanisms too, particularly in today's world where everything can be subject to an online review. This is clearly an issue of importance to the deaf community in Wisconsin, so I don't doubt they would be able to police bad actors and prevent them from finding work. In many ways, this more personalized, market-based regulation can offer superior results compared to what you get with government licensing. Getting a license means you cleared the bar set by bureaucrats in Madison (or somewhere else), but that's all. It's binary. Black and white, on or off, yes or no.

Market based regulations or private certifications allow consumers to see a range of results. It filters out the bad guys, but it also lets the really good ones stand out from the crowd.

"The issue is not whether sign language interpreters are important or whether it matters if interpretation is accurate. It is our view that free markets, informed with good information, are the most efficient means at ensuring quality – not government permission slips," says Collin Roth, a research fellow at the Wisconsin Institute for Law and Liberty. "Fencing out interpreters who may be well qualified but are not in a position to bear the costs and burdens of licensure is, in our view, more likely to deny the deaf community the services that it needs – and drive up the cost of those services – than it is to materially improve public and safety,"

If all else fails and there is a real concern about people passing themselves off, Jantjie-style, as fake sign language interpreters, lawmakers can always make that a crime and empower the state attorney general to prosecute such frauds.

That should be a last resort, of course, but it's still better than licensing because it only punishes those who are actually breaking the law. Licensing operates under the premise that government permitting will prevent potential law-breakers from ever having the chance to do so by erecting a barrier to entry. The problem is that everyone—including the vast majority of people who aren't going to commit that sort of fraud—has to clear that same barrier.

"State legislators should insert themselves between provider and buyer only when there is a problem that private actors cannot fix," McGrath told me via email. "Moreover, when the state does intervene, it should be in the least restrictive way."

More restrictive methods, like licensing, restrict competition, hurt opportunities for workers, and raise consumer prices. Licensing cost Wisconsin more than 30,000 jobs over the last 20 years and adds an additional $1.9 billion annually in consumer costs, according to the Wisconsin Institute for Law and Liberty report. Sign language interpreter licensing probably accounts for only a tiny part of that cost, but Staller admits that "it's much more expensive and time-consuming" to be an interpreter today than it was decades ago when she started working in the field.

Deaf people everywhere should have access to high-quality, well-trained sign language interpreters and should be protected against frauds. The question lawmakers in Wisconsin (and elsewhere) should be asking themselves is whether mandatory government permission slips are the best way to accomplish that.

NEXT: Robert Ford Killed Jesse James—Or At Least That's What They Want You to Believe

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  1. Licensing Isn’t Necessary To Protect People From Incompetent, Untrained, or Fraudulent Professionals

    According to an argument downblog, regulations are the ONLY way to protect people from incompetent, untrained or fraudulent professionals.

    1. Look, GILMORE, I can’t give you any data on the number of deaf people scammed before the advent of government licensing, but even if I could, and even if that number was Zero, it wouldn’t matter.

      1. Fuck, I meant Paul. Whatever.

    2. Sure, you could get some unlicensed hack who knows what they’re doing to install your water heater, but don’t you just feel better knowing you got ripped off by a licensed plumber?

  2. I think it’s time for licenses for internet commenters. They must be trained to recognize fake news and not to spread it. Also, they should take weekly training to recognize the proper ways to think before posting. TOP.MEN will be assigned to decide what is fake news and what is the proper way to think. We have to protect the children.

    1. It should require monthly tuning of sarcasm detectors too.

      1. I just got back from my first training session.

        Fidel Castro was a great man! Liz Warren is a hero! Thank you liz for your recount efforts! President Obama can just stay on until Hillary wins! *posts dancing banana gif, likes friends posts on Facebook*.

        1. *throws you booze and porn*

          Come back to us! Don’t go toward the light!

  3. . . . but there’s no evidence of a market failure.

    Your very article is full of evidence of market failure. If it wasn’t market failure then how did that guy get hired to interpret for the President? He’s nobody and because there’s no licensing regime there’s no way to check hos bona-fides. So not only is he signing random things, he could have attacked the President!!11!!

    If it saves just one life, think of the children.

    1. Donald Trump doesn’t have a license to be president! Hillary wins!

    2. check hos bona-fides

      always good advice

    3. Licensing schemes are never gamed. Fake degrees don’t exist.

      All you’ll do by requiring licenses and/or degrees is create an incentive for people to pretend to have them, even if they actually know what they’re doing. These schemes are usually expensive and it’s much quicker and cheaper to just create fakes.

  4. Licensing Isn’t Necessary To Protect People From Incompetent, Untrained, or Fraudulent Professionals

    Just wait until politicians decided to require licensing for their own profession. Though, I guess you could say that getting ballot access is often kind of like licensing (onerous and arbitrary, but “everybody” agrees it is necessary.)

    1. “Just wait until politicians decided to require licensing for their own profession”

      First training class for getting license: Advanced lying and pandering 102

  5. True. For example, if, lacking information, I pick an incompetent quack surgeon who removes my aorta instead of my appendix and I get all dead, well, he will never get any more business from me.

    And if he keeps making errors like this he would soon be out of business without any effort on the part of licensing authorities.

    1. No one is suggesting doctors don’t need a license, but do barbers really need to go to cosmetology school for a full year or more?
      How about dog walkers? Artists don’t need a license but interior designers do. Does that make sense?

      1. No one is suggesting doctors don’t need a license

        Read further down.

      2. There is a constant push by “certified” dog trainers to have dog training licensed. I got kicked out of a seminar once for arguing against it. The only “certified” dog trainers I know usually can’t train their way out of a brown paper bag but they have the credentials and organizations set up to make money from licensing.

        Same with canine behaviorists who have decided the word “behaviorist” can only be used by people with a vet degree and a PhD even though I do it everyday. Makes them mad that they can’t stop me from calling myself one.

  6. For whatever reason, people generally assume the government is competent-(ish) and benevolent-(ish). Most people don’t put a lot of thought into these things or investigate what actually happens behind the scenes. People want vendors to be high-quality and when they hear things like “licensed” or “accredited” they assume that these are efficient and trustworthy processes to establish that a vendor is of high quality.

    People also assume that many private businesses are just dying to take advantage of customers in numerous ways, whether it’s poisoning the environment, poisoning their food, shoddy worksmanship or just ripping people off.

    These assumption are wrong. But they are deeply embedded in lots and lots of people out there. Try telling somebody that we don’t need inspections at restaurants and they’ll look at you like you’re insane. Try telling them we could privatize and you’ll get the same reaction. Plus nobody will vote on this stuff and the media will never cover the downsides (but just wait until they find a single actor who misbehaved in the unlicensed environment)

    It all really seems like an uphill climb on a lot of these issues that seem so obvious to libertarians.

    1. people generally assume the government is competent-(ish) and benevolent-(ish)

      I don’t know how anyone who has ever visited a DMV or post office could possibly arrive at that conclusion.

      1. Agree – and I probably could’ve phrased that more accurately by adding some more words.

        The thing is that people almost never take the next step of applying those experiences to government interactions with others. I think they just don’t think about it too much. It’s like, “sure that was a pain in the ass for me, but all that government stuff that I’m not exposed to probably runs smoothly enough for everyone else”.

        I’m not saying it’s right – it just seems to be what people think.

    2. The quickest way to lay bare those bad assumptions is to ask the person making them – is that how you behave in your work?

    3. Try telling them we could privatize and you’ll get the same reaction.

      How do they buy Kosher food then?

      1. That’s a good one.

        1. Its my standard go to example. I never get anything but silence and sputtering in response.

  7. Licensing is a pain in the ass [yeah, I have one too]; visited family for Thanksgiving and heard a great story about one of my great uncles who supposedly killed a guy over the guy’s wife [the guy may have been the local sheriff, by the way…].

    Anyway uncle Dave is sent of to the slammer for manslaughter or some less than life sentence; as he was a pretty smart guy they assigned him to the infirmary where he learned he had a penchant for all things apothecary.

    So he gets out and they let him work as a pharmacist! I believe this was in the 20s.

    Actually learned and practiced a profession from his time in the big house. Sure couldn’t do that now; now he’d be limited to a landscaping gig, if that.

    1. Was his name William Sydney Porter?

  8. Why cant their by a private organization that credentials interpreters. If you go with the American Sign Language Association, then you know you are getting a real signer with up to date knowledge.

    No need of government license.

    Like with all things like this, the jews already figured it out. Kosher needs no government decrees.

    1. Two quick notes, I made up the organization name and this works for every other licensing scheme too.

      1. The American Medical Association bagan as that sort of thing but got a stranglehold on credentialing by lobbying governments.

        1. Of course. And they are another good example, because it sounds like a situation that NEEDS government licensing, but if it was just the AMA doing it, would any hospital hire someone without AMA credentials? And would any insurance company accept them?

          1. Why not a UL for most regulation, instead of government?

            1. I used to use UL instead of Kosher for my example, but too many governments have incorporated UL into their laws.

              1. Not their fault (unless they lobbied for it like the AMA) but I still prefer the Kosher example.

                1. Privatize it all. We should add “Separation of Commerce and State” to the Constitution.

        2. I’m sure the governments weren’t innocent in that matter, either. People have been trying to control the practice of medicine with government for at least as long as the AMA has existed.

  9. Stallers arguments are false in this modern world of paper and pencil where ideas can be written down for people and if they can’t read the written word then they probably can’t read hand signs

    1. ASL is not English and depending on the person exposure to English (and it may be very limited for older people), written English may have little meaning for the deaf person. As a separate language they need interpreters especially when it comes to legal matters and medicine. Also, different countries have different sign languages and need interpreters that are fluent in those visual languages. I once watched as an interpreter of ASL who had to use gesture to communicate with someone who used a sign language that there were no interpreters for. It was fascinating but the concepts communicated were pretty basic.

  10. Congratulations, Karen Beth Staller. You’ve successfully queued up to be a slave of government.

    I guess this is in order…

  11. I am trying to imagine how one could be harmed by an interior designer with no license….nope, can’t. How about a barber? Nope. If you don’t like someone’s design advice don’t follow it. If you don’t like the haircut you got, don’t go back. One even has to evaluate doctors and they HAVE a degree. caveat emptor always.

    1. My brother went to a little barber shop on Fleet Street. Let me you, they can some major damage.

  12. Forgot to add: two big jobs with no degree or license required: politicians and being a CEO.

  13. How many of the people that Eric Boehm heard from were deaf? I would say the Deaf don’t care whether you’re licensed or not- they just care if you can do you’re job well. And if asked around the Deaf community, you would find all kinds of complaints about the “certified” interpreters who never knew sign language or deaf people before deciding on it as a career and are mediocre at best.

    Chances are almost all of the people he heard from were the interpreters who want to protect their jobs from skilled but unlicensed interpreters.

  14. Eric, Boehm:
    I think your article misses a very important point, one that actually helps the argument.

    Staller claims “As a freelance interpreter, one might go into a college classroom for a class on legal ethics or microbiology; a doctor’s office for a cold or a cancer diagnosis; an operating room for open heart surgery; a courtroom for a divorce hearing or a murder trial; a factory floor for a job interview or forklift training; an emergency room for a broken toe or a shooting; a bank to liquidate a deceased relative’s accounts; a funeral home to make final arrangements; and hundreds of other settings for myriad other reasons…”

    However, EVERYTHING she claims above is also applicable to any sort of interpretation between spoken languages – Chinese/English, Spanish/English, Tagalog/English, etc, etc. Any harm possible between spoken English and ASL is also possible via any two spoken languages. And yet, no where can I find any evidence that any state in the US requires licensing of spoken language interpreters.

    Not only that, the market has clearly shown that it is capable of dealing with spoken language interpreters without licensing.

  15. It’s shameful that Jimmy Kimmel’s interpreter did not point out that South African Sign Language is derived from British/Australian/New Zealand SL, unrelated to American SL which is derived from French SL.

  16. From my homeslice Friedman:

    There are three levels of control: registration, certification and licensing.

    Registration asks practitioners to list their names, but does not outlaw unlisted individuals from practicing.

    Certifications award practitioners with a legal title such as “architect” or “CPA,” but does not ban the untitled from practicing architecture or accounting.

    The third is licensure, which requires a measure of competence in the field and outlaws the unlicensed from practicing.

    “almost inevitably becomes a tool in the hands of a special producer group to obtain a monopoly position at the expense of the rest of the public.”

    “I personally find it difficult to see any case for which licensure rather than certification can be justified.”

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