All Commentary
Sunday, November 1, 1992

Does Occupational Licensing Protect Consumers?

When government sets the standards for quality, the standards are more likely to be dictated by political pressures.

It takes more to become an auctioneer in North Carolina than just experience, desire, and above-average verbal dexterity. It also requires a license from the North Carolina Auctioneer Licensing Board. Similarly, while a flashy television ad and a good reputation can give retailers of hearing aids a competitive edge in Missouri, they won’t sell a single device without first obtaining a license from the state’s board regulating hearing aid dealers.

While many Americans know that their doctors, lawyers, and other specialized professionals are closely regulated by state boards and commissions, most don’t know that barbers, plumbers, morticians, “cosmetic artists,” and a host of other occupations–1,000 at last count—are regulated, certified, or licensed by states. What consumers don’t know is nevertheless supposed to help them. Advocates of government licensing and other occupational regulations contend that unless the state has a hand in guaranteeing quality, consumers will receive shoddy and overpriced services. And professional organizations frequently support government regulations on their members in order to “protect them from fraudulent and unscrupulous competitors” and to maintain the reputation of their profession.

In most cases, professions are licensed by state boards or commissions, established by legislatures, and staffed by gubernatorial or legislative appointment. These panels establish and monitor entrance requirements for new practitioners, handle consumer complaints, and undertake disciplinary actions against professionals who violate state regulations. The average number of occupational licensing and regulatory boards in a state is 17, but the number ranges from 29 in California to five or six in such states as Wyoming, where only professions like doctors, lawyers, and dentists are regulated.

But while the promise of occupational regulation is great, research shows that it is rarely fulfilled. In the United States, at least, these regulations typically raise the price of services without significantly raising service quality—and indeed, in many instances regulation appears to lower the quality of services consumers buy.

How Licensing Limits Competition

One of the most well-known effects of occupational licensing and regulation is reduced competition. The theory is that by excluding some providers of a service from the market, regulations reduce competition and form a kind of “cartel” in which service providers can afford to charge high prices without fear of losing customers. Potential competitors are excluded by state requirements regarding years of education, college degrees, apprenticeships, or licensing examinations. In some states, barbers or hair stylists must receive at least an associate (two year) college degree, despite the fact that even the trickiest tasks they perform—dealing with treatments or chemicals, for example—can be mastered through on-the-job training. Similarly, while everyone would like to visit the highest-skilled dentist (if it cost no more to do so), surveys of dental practice find that about 80 percent of the work performed by dentists are routine tasks that can be performed by a high-school graduate with only 20 months of post-secondary-school training.

Experience requirements seem particularly arbitrary, related less to minimum competency than to excluding people from the profession. Until recently, becoming a master plumber in Illinois took longer than becoming a Fellow of the American College of Surgeons. Similarly, an Oregon board regulating cosmetology raised the number of training hours required for entry from 1,500 to 2,500. According to Cato Institute author David Young, pressure for the change came not from disgruntled cosmetology consumers but from beauty schools that were able to charge more tuition and serve more consumers in school training salons. In addition, experience standards frequently govern not just how much experience a potential professional has but also where that experience is gained. In New York City, a “master plumber” must have 20 years of experience as a “journeyman” under a master plumber in New York City. Ten years of experience in Philadelphia or Akron do not count.

Some states require U.S. citizenship for licenses, which might make some sense for lawyers trained in French or Islamic law but not for other professions, including doctors, where knowledge of a particular culture is not needed or can be gained on the job. Other states impose residency requirements, with the same apparent irrelevancy to actual job performance.

Licensing examinations frequently reflect their true purpose of excluding competition more than their ostensible purpose of guaranteeing quality. A national exam for landscape architects, required in many states, was studied by consultants to the California Board of Landscape Architects in 1983. They found that fewer than half of exam questions had a direct relationship to public health or safety. On the portion involving history, 40 out of 45 questions were unrelated to the job. In another section, 32 of 98 questions were found to require more advanced knowledge than that normally considered “entry level”—in other words, they expected new landscape architects to mirror experienced architects in knowledge. These kinds of barriers to entry seem to be designed not so much to aid consumers as to aid those already in the professions regulated. After all, if new entrants to their professions are few, established professionals have less competition and thus can afford to charge higher prices without driving their customers into the arms of lower-priced competitors.

 The Effects on Consumer Prices

Researchers have found it difficult to estimate the precise impact of licensing and other regulations on price, because of the way these impacts are generated. Not surprisingly, it is difficult to guess at how many people would enter a given profession if regulations were lifted, and how prices would adjust to the enhanced competition. Moreover, licensing boards affect not only the specific occupations they regulate, but also new or innovative occupations that may compete with them by offering to solve a particular problem or provide a service in a whole new way. One example of this effect is the return of midwives as a low cost substitute for obstetricians and hospital-based birthing. According to a 1987 survey, 16 states prohibit the practice of midwifery. Seventeen states have licensing or registration laws governing midwives, and 17 have no law specifically prohibiting midwives from working (because professional regulations are constantly evolving and changing, these figures may understate or overstate the regulation of midwives). Because in-home births assisted by midwives cost significantly less than hospital stays, it is not surprising that medical boards have sought regulation of midwives.

The midwife case demonstrates how risk enters into the professional licensing picture. Though midwives may challenge this assumption, most people believe that in-home childbirth is more risky than birth at the hospital, chiefly because hospitals have equipment and specialists with which to intervene should complications or atypical medical problems develop. Thus, potential parents who choose midwifery over the traditional approach are apparently taking a risk in exchange for a price break. By disallowing this type of consumer risk, licensing boards may advance their notion of consumer safety—at the expense of lower-price choices for consumers.

Despite the difficulties in gauging price effects, researchers have been able to estimate how far prices might drop if licensing were lifted. In a 1978 study, Lawrence Shepard of the University of California at Davis examined the price differences between dentists in states where out-of-state licenses were honored to those in states where such licenses were not honored. In the latter group of states, dentists moving into the area had to meet new state or local licensing requirements, thus increasing the barriers to entry in those areas. Therefore, recognizing out-of-state licenses is to some extent a less restrictive form of regulation.

Shepard found that the price of dental services and the average income of dentists were 12 to 15 percent higher in the states where out-of-state licenses were not honored. In other words, regulation increases price, and the more restrictive the regulations, the higher the price will be. In the early 1980s, a set of studies by Canadian researchers found that licensing regulations imposed on some 20 professions increased potential earnings of professionals by nearly 27 percent.

The Effect on Quality

Consumers might still think these inflated prices to be a bargain if they resulted in higher quality services. Unfortunately, this is not the case. Several studies have shown that regulations reduce the quality of services and consumer safety. Quality declines because the quantity of professionals falls. Even if the professionals remaining in a field after the advent of regulations are more qualified than their pre-regulation predecessors, consumers can still suffer from reduced quantity and availability of services. There are several ways reduced quantity leads to reduced quality.

1. Substitution

When consumers cannot find a professional to provide a service—or if they cannot afford the higher prices charged by professionals with scant competition—they frequently try lower-quality substitutes. Homeowners may try to do their own electrical work, for instance, because licensed electricians are few and charge high hourly rates.

2. Overtraining

 Ironically, if high licensing barriers permit only the most skilled professionals into the market, more routine tasks which could be performed by less-qualified entry-level professionals are performed by the highest-qualified ones. This, in effect, wastes their expertise and their time. The minutes or hours a dentist spends on routine maintenance, for instance, leave less time to perform delicate operations.

3. Visit Tradeoff

 Consumers maintain their health and safety not only because of the skills of the professionals they use but also because of the frequent visits to or by their professionals. Therefore, if regulation boosts the price per visit or reduces the number of professionals, thus reducing the available appointment times for each consumer, consumer health and safety will suffer. Obviously this is especially true in the case of medicine. It may take an incredible amount of skill and resources to treat a serious disease, which in its early stages can be prevented—if detected by regular vigilance. Similarly, regular visits to an accountant to keep financial records and tax plans in good order can be less expensive and more productive in the long run than once-a-year tax-a-thons for some consumers.

Researchers Sidney L. Carroll and Robert J. Gaston have studied the various effects of professional quantity on service quality for a number of professionals. In general, they found that licensing and other regulations can reduce quality by reducing quantity. Here are a few examples of professions they studied:

• Electricians. Carroll and Gaston found that licensing restrictions such as prior experience and oral licensing examinations reduced the number of electricians offering services in a given area. Then they compared the availability of electricians with rates of accidental deaths by electric shock. They found that “restrictions that reduce the density of electricians are significantly associated with a rise in the rate of death from accidental electrocution.” Possible explanations for their finding could be that homeowners were attempting their own electrical repairs or installations, or that homeowners ignored potential warning signs of electrical problems because the prospect of paying an electrician to look at them was too daunting.

• Dentists: Relying on surveys of dentists, Carroll and Gaston estimated that licensing restrictions lowered the number of dentists available in a given state (judging by the number of dentists complaining of being “too busy” or having long patient waiting lists). Relating these data to other information about the dental health of patients in 22 states, the researchers found that smaller numbers of dentists per capita were associated with, for example, more widespread tendencies among those who own false teeth to never wear them, indicating “that the dentures, for whatever reason, were not satisfactory.”

• Plumbers: Carroll and Gaston found that the number of plumbers per capita was associated with the retail sales of plumbing supplies, indicating that as plumbing services were made less available or more costly, consumers were more likely to attempt repairs themselves.

• Real Estate Brokers: In those states with licensing requirements for real estate brokers, Carroll and Gaston found that the number of brokers per capita was low and that quality of service was correspondingly low, at least measured by how long houses remained unsold on the market.

• Veterinarians: Carroll and Gaston found that “the more strict the barriers to obtain a License, the fewer practitioners there are and that this results in an under-discovery of animal disease, thus possibly increasing the risk of infection to both healthy domestic animals and ultimately people.” For example, the researchers found that incidence of rabies was higher in those jurisdictions where there are strict limits on veterinary practice.

Other studies have found a similar relationship between licensing and quality—namely that where one is found, the other usually is not. For instance, the Federal Trade Commission studied incidence of fraud in the television repair industry in three jurisdictions: Louisiana, which licenses repairmen; California, which registers them; and Washington, D.C., where the profession is not regulated. Fraud was more frequent and prices were 20 percent higher in Louisiana than in the other jurisdictions. 

The Fairness Issue

While research on licensing regulations has generally found limited or counterproductive effects for consumers, the issue is complicated by the fact that all consumers are not created equal. Some have more resources and expertise than others have. Licensing laws are supposed to help those consumers without the necessary knowledge or luxury of finding high quality services in the marketplace by substituting the good judgment of government regulators. Unfortunately, licensing regulation seems to have the opposite effect—it benefits the most advantaged consumers at the expense of the least advantaged.

First of all, lower-income consumers, by definition, will be most hurt by price increases due to licensing. They are the ones most likely to turn to more dangerous “do-it-yourself” substitutes, or to simply stop purchasing a service, deeming it less important than other goods and services they must buy with their limited resources. Furthermore, lower-income consumers frequently form the market tapped by innovators who seek to provide services at lower cost. To the extent that barriers to entry included in licensing laws reduce the potential profits of an entrepreneur or inventor, they are less likely to take the risk of entering the market. Licensing boards are frequently controlled by the professionals they regulate, whether formally (i.e., state bar associations governing the practice of law) or by political pressure. Thus potential innovators who offer quality services at lower prices become the target of professionals already in the market who don’t want their collective boats “rocked.”

It is certainly true that many consumers do not have expertise to judge the quality of services, but that doesn’t necessarily suggest that government would be better at it. In The Rule of Experts, David Young points out that even if only some consumers shop wisely for quality services, that creates competitive pressures on professionals to ensure their quality, thus helping everyone. When government sets the standards for quality, rather than quality-conscious consumers, the standards are more likely to be dictated by political pressures, by established professionals concerned with potential competition, than by consumer demand. Importantly, savvy or knowledgeable consumers may still be able to shop around for the best doctor or electrician or plumber under a regulatory atmosphere—and, indeed, can afford the higher prices charged. Other consumers aren’t so lucky. And in extreme circumstances, wealthy consumers can travel to other, less regulated jurisdictions to obtain services not offered in regulated areas. Again, lower-income consumers cannot afford to do so. So, while occupational licensing is supposed to help those least able to help themselves—consumers who might be “taken advantage of” in a free marketplace—the reality is quite different.

Attempted Reforms

Recognizing the detrimental impact of licensing and other regulations on price and other consumer interests, some states have tried to reform the operation and makeup of state licensing boards. In many cases, reform has focused on the tendency of professionals being regulated to dominate the membership of regulatory boards. To introduce consumer interests into the process, some states have required so-called “public” board membership, in which non-professional people are nominated to licensing boards. But these reforms apparently do not significantly change either the operation of licensing boards or the barriers to entry they enforce in specific professional fields.

Saundra K. Schneider, a professor of political science, examined the operations of 16 licensing boards in Missouri, trying to relate decisions to such factors as board size, budget, and the existence of “public” members. She found that “the presence of voting public membership has no effect on any aspect of board decision making.” Similar studies in Michigan and California found that board decisions were no different after non-professional people were nominated, and that ”public” members preferred to serve on advisory boards rather than on enforcement boards with detailed work to do or the responsibility for judging the conduct of specific professionals. One problem might be what economists call “regulatory capture”—the tendency for regulated industries to dominate their regulators because of the technical nature of relevant information or because those regulated are ultimately the source of information for those who are doing the regulating.

In other words, the negative impact of licensing boards is not related to the membership of the boards but to their very nature. These boards are supposed to represent the interests of consumers in various professional fields, but the regulations enforced are more likely to serve the interests of those regulated—by increasing their income, by reducing their potential competition—and favor the interests of higher-income consumers over those to whom price and availability of a service may be more important than the formal education or skills of the service provider. The rationale for occupational licensing assumes that the interests of consumers can be generalized, when in fact different consumers value different things.

More importantly, this rationale assumes that government regulations function as they are intended. But research into the actual effects of licensing laws proves that by reducing the number of providers of a service and increasing the price of that service, they hurt most consumers more than they help them. Given this evidence, the best way to protect consumer health and safety would be to let them choose their own services in a free market.

  • John Hood is a former president of the John Locke Foundation, a state policy think tank in North Carolina, and author of The Heroic Enterprise: Business and the Common Good (Free Press).