5 Easy Ways to Make Virginia Better

Certain reforms can increase the store of liberty and equality at the same time-which means both gubernatorial candidates should find them worthy of support.


Principled political disagreements in the U.S. tend to revolve around two noble ideals: liberty and equality. Should a Christian baker be free to decline requests for gay-wedding cakes, or must he treat every customer the same? Should some Americans be forced to buy insurance to guarantee medical coverage for everyone?

Virginia's race for governor entails similar contrasts, although less intensely. Democrat Ralph Northam and Republican Ed Gillespie both inhabit the political center, and they agree on a great deal.

But their differences generally break along the same lines. Gillespie wants to cut taxes, for instance; Northam calls Gillespie's proposal a "giveaway to the rich."

Yet the game doesn't always have to be zero-sum. Certain reforms can increase the store of liberty and equality at the same time—which means both candidates should find them worthy of support. Here are just a few.

(1) Lower barriers to professional occupations. In a January paper on "Eight Market-Oriented Proposals That Reduce Income Inequality," Dean Baker of the Center for Economic and Policy Research points out that doctors in the United States tend to make far more than their counterparts elsewhere. On the low end, family practitioners in America average $189,000 a year in earnings; cardiologists average more than half a million. Medical care therefore tends to involve wealth transfers from the less-well-off to the more-well-off.

One quick and easy way to counter that dynamic: Increase the supply of providers. For instance, at present foreign doctors who come to the U.S. cannot just start practicing; they first must complete a residency program, which creates a bottleneck in the supply chain—and drives up prices.

Another way to increase the supply of medical care: Let advanced-practice nurses deliver more without a doctor's supervision. Study after study of this issue has been done, and the overwhelming consensus is that expanding the scope of practice for nurses would lower the cost of health care without reducing patient welfare.

Giving nurses and patients more freedom would leave more money in patients' pockets, put more money in nurses', and less money in doctors'. More freedom. Less inequality.

(Northam, by the way, is a doctor. What does he think of the idea?)

(2) Lower occupational licensing generally. Everyone from the Heritage Foundation to the Obama administration has come to recognize the absurd burden that excessive licensing rules impose on people trying to make a living.

In Virginia, roughly 20 percent of workers need to get a government permission slip before they can practice even such trades as massage therapy and upholstery. Virginia is among the most burdensome states, requiring a license for nearly half of 102 low-income occupations. Those unnecessary rules help keep poor people poor.

The restrictions often have more to do with protecting market incumbents from competition than with protecting the public from harm. Massage therapists need 117 days of instruction under the commonwealth's rules; EMTs need only 28.

As the Obama administration noted, such barriers "artificially create higher costs for consumers and prohibit skilled American workers like florists or hairdressers from entering jobs in which they could otherwise excel. … In addition, the patchwork of state-by-state licensing rules leads to dramatically different requirements for the same occupations depending on the state in which one lives, burdening workers who aim to move across state lines—including, for example, military spouses who move frequently."

(3) Eliminate snob zoning. As in any other economic sector, prices in the housing market are driven by supply and demand, and government often curtails the supply in numerous ways.

Minimum lot sizes drive up prices by making buyers purchase more land and by limiting the number of lots that can be sold in a given area. Even generally pro-regulation writers like Paul Krugman concede "national housing prices have risen much faster than construction costs since the 1990s, and land-use restrictions are the most likely culprit."

Historic districts—Richmond alone has more than a dozen—can have similar effects. So can housing codes that restrict the number of people who can live in a single residence, which has been an occasional source of friction in places such as Northern Virginia. Fairfax is the second-richest county in the nation, and folks in its tony neighborhoods have not been pleased to see immigrants crowding into McMansions or running businesses out of the garages.

(4) Encourage immigration. Although federal laws determine who gets into the country, states and localities can be more or less welcoming (just ask Prince William Board Chairman Corey Stewart). To put it baldly, immigrants are great for the economy: They are twice as likely to start a new business as native-born Americans, and are less likely than natives to commit crime. That's true even of illegal immigrants, by the way. Letting poor people come to America and get rich by creating jobs for Americans. What's not to like?

(5) Pare back Puritanism. Privatizing the Department of Alcoholic Beverage Control probably isn't going to happen; state lawmakers are too hooked on the revenue. But at the least, Virginia should allow the sale of hard spirits in groceries and mom-and-pop stores, thereby sharing with small entrepreneurs some of the profits that now go solely into the state's pocket.

Likewise, legalizing marijuana would create a profitable new industry in the Old Dominion by permitting the sale of a product that is less dangerous than alcohol. That, too, may be too much for this temperamentally conservative state. But decriminalizing marijuana possession would address the stark racial disparity in marijuana arrests: African-Americans are 3.7 times more likely to be arrested for possession, even though blacks and whites use marijuana at similar rates.

Marijuana-related racial disparities have not disappeared in places where pot is now legal, but both arrests overall and the degree of disproportionality have declined. More marijuana freedom would reduce the inequality in arrests—along with the loss of income, reduced job prospects, and other ills attendant upon it.

All of these proposals would make people both more free to do as they wish, and more equal in the economic and social scales. If politicians are looking for common ground (a big if, but work with me here), these would make a good place to start.

This column originally appeared in the Richmond Times-Dispatch.