Occupational Licensing

Virginia Is About To Require a Government License for 'Art Therapy,' Because Glue and Scissors Are 'Potentially' Dangerous

The real motive for laws like this has nothing to do with scissors and glue. It's all about protectionism.


Based on a study that cites such potential dangers as the "sharp edges" on scissors and "toxic chemicals" in glue, state lawmakers in Virginia are on their way to approving a new licensing law to cover art therapists.

There is no word on whether kindergartners will continue to be allowed to use these tools that, in the hands of unlicensed adults, apparently constitute a risk to public safety.

The Virginia state Senate voted unanimously this week to approve the legislation, sending the bill to the state Assembly for further consideration. The bill would create a new license for art therapists, but it is largely silent on the requirements for obtaining such a license. Instead, the legislature intends to offload those details to a newly created board—a board that will be staffed primarily by practicing art therapists.

That's a common practice when it comes to licensing laws. It's also one of the primary reasons why occupational licensing limits job opportunities. Boards that are controlled by members of the industry they are supposed to regulate frequently become anti-competitive cartels more interested in limiting who can do certain types of work. The most egregious example is probably Louisiana's ridiculous florist licensing board.

Art therapy is no more dangerous than arranging flowers. It's a growing practice—one that is, sadly, already licensed in some form by 12 other states—that incorporates psychotherapy with artistic media, usually by having patients express themselves through art. Practitioners say it can help individuals cope with stress and keep mental disorders under control.

Should that require a permission slip from the government?

"With its new state power, an art therapy licensing board could go after art teachers for advertising the mental health benefits of their classes or go after out-of-state art therapists for offering online classes," warns Andrew Wimer, communications director for the Institute for Justice, a nonprofit law firm that frequently challenges anti-competitive licensing laws. "Potential problems like these are why licensing should be a last resort used when there are real threats to public health and safety."

That's where the nonsense about glue and scissors comes in. In a report to the state legislature, the Virginia Board of Health Professions found no examples of public safety threats created by unlicensed art therapists. Undeterred, the group said the legislature should consider creating the new license anyway, because there are "basic art tools, such as paint and glue, which contain toxic chemicals that could cause harm should they be inhaled or ingested, scissors which have sharp edges capable of causing cuts or punctures, and objects such as clay, if thrown, could be considered potentially dangers."

The same report recommends that the state require a master's degree in art therapy as part of the to-be-determined criteria for obtaining an art therapy license.

Yes, the same scissors that thousands of other Virginians might use on a daily basis for dozens of different tasks would be, under this legislation, considered dangerous public threats if handled by an art therapist lacking an advanced degree.

There are already professional certifications and accreditation processes for art therapists. If those are insufficient to ensure public safety, you'd assume advocates for licensing would make that argument in their reports to the state legislature.

"First of all, nobody has demonstrated the harm of unlicensed art therapy. So this is a solution without a problem," says Shoshana Weissman, who works on occupational licensing reform at the R Street Institute. "Furthermore, therapy is already licensed; why do we need to add this additional license?"

The real motivation behind licensing laws like this has nothing to do with the potential dangers of scissors and glue, of course. It's all about capturing a segment of the economy, and in that regard the Virginia proposal would be quite effective.

By the way, only two universities in the state offer master's degrees in art therapy. In the same way that mandatory licensing for makeup artists creates a captured market for cosmetology schools—if you want that license, you have to pay for classes at one of those schools, even if you already have the necessary skills—mandatory art therapy licensing would force would-be therapists to attend one of those two institutions.

The Virginia Board of Health Professions report also notes that mandatory licensing would allow art therapists to charge higher rates for their services. Funny how that happens when you start erecting artificial barriers to competition, right?

Protectionism for art therapists and a windfall for a couple of universities is a bad reason to limit opportunities for all Virginians. And excessive licensing is no joke. One study has found that licensing laws across all 50 states resulted in 2.85 million fewer jobs and cost consumers more than $200 billion annually.

The real threat to the public is not unlicensed art therapists with merely an undergrad degree wielding scissors and glue. It's state lawmakers crafting anti-competitive policies without regard for common sense.