Joe The Plumber And Professional Licensing Laws
After Joe Wurzelbacher became the star of the Wednesday night’s debate, the media started looking in to his background and it didn’t take long for someone to discovery that Joe the Plumber doesn’t have a plumber’s license.
Now, Wurzelbacher admits that and say that, because he works for someone who has a license, he isn’t required to be licensed under Ohio law.
Whether that’s true or not, though, Matthew Yglesias notes it raises another question entirely:
[Wurzelbacher] raises the issue of whether or not it really serves the public interest to have so many occupational licensing rules. Like most people, if I needed to hire a plumber, I’d probably look for a recommendation. I don’t have any real confidence that these licensing schemes are tracking quality in any meaningful way, just preventing a certain number of people from earning a living and raising the general cost of plumbing services for everyone else.
Yglesias has a point, and it applies to more than just plumbers. Depending on the jurisdiction you live in you have to get a license from the state to be a plumber, carpenter, landscaper, electrician, beautician, dog groomer, dog walker, and probably a whole host of other occupations that I can’t even think of right now.
But what purpose does the licensing really serve ? Does anyone really believe that the mere fact that one of these professionals has a piece of paper from the state or local government means that they are competent to do their job, or that they’ve never cheated someone on a job ?
Of course not. That’s why you don’t just rely on whether or not someone is licensed before hiring them to, say, remodel your basement, build a deck, or fix your water heater. You do what Yglesias would do, you’d look for recommendations from friends, family or neighbors.
So if it’s not guaranteeing good or even competent service, what purpose is the licensing serving ?
Well, one of Yglesias’s commentors, probably inadvertently, stated it pretty clearly:
The problem is that when you don’t have any licensing for skilled positions you have a glut of weekend warriors who drive the price down and put professionals out of business– and that eventually lowers quality. I knew a guy who had his own landscaping business but gave it up because there were too many people with a John Deere who would do stuff for absurdly low rates because it was only a hobby for them. When it came to doing actually skilled work, of course, they sucked at it– but people want to believe they can get quality work without paying for it. So they go with an unskilled cheap guy and the actual professional suffers.
In other words, the purpose of professional licensing, more often than not, is not to “protect the public,” it’s to protect incumbent businesses by creating barriers to entry, restricting the supply of skilled labor, and making the cost of that labor more expensive to the public.