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.

  • thomasblair

    So I assume you’re petitioning, phoning all manner of congressmen and state representatives, and drafting resolutions to do away with bar requirements for attorneys?

    After all, the purpose of professional licensing is to protect incumbents, restrict supply, and raise prices.

  • Mark

    I can’t speak for Doug (who is also an attorney), but as an attorney myself, I can say in no uncertain terms that attorney licensing is a complete joke with exactly zero connection to the practice of law. The effect of it (combined with the effect, in states not called “Virginia,” of requiring an equally meaningless JD) is to dramatically raise the costs of entry into the profession, thereby discouraging and even preventing people from lower to middle class families from entering the profession. I’ve seen too many brilliant paralegals capable of doing terrific attorney work, and too many totally incompetent attorneys to think that having an “Esq.” after your name has any real meaning beyond whether the law permits you to appear in court. Of course, it should be no surprise that legal licensing laws were amongst the first to get passed – after all, legislatures have long been composed of an abnormally large number of attorneys.

    One other point – Yglesias is taking a stance against licensing laws? Maybe my prediction of an eventual left-libertarian coalition will come true sooner than I expect. (FWIW- I’ve never set forth a timeline in my many predictions of such a coalition, but I’d be surprised if it took less than 10 years to come together in a meaningful manner).

  • SC

    Well… as much as I normally agree with you (and I do agree that there are more licenses required for things that really shouldn’t require a license), I tend to side with the idea of a license being a good idea in the case of trades like plumbers, electricians, etc, where there are potential health/safety issues. To me the real licensing issues are really 1) does the licensing process really reflect an honest attempt to ascertain that the individual has a certain level of competence or knowledge in the licensed field, and 2) is obtaining a license unnecessarily expensive and/or beaureaucratic? Yeah, testing for a license isn’t always a guarantee (people get lucky, people cheat, etc.), but then again, holding a college degree isn’t a guarantee of competence either.

  • VRB

    I agree with SC. For some things I would not care if a plumber was licensed or not, only when it was necessary to have a gas appliance repaired or replaced. At that time, I would have hoped that his skill would have been checked in the licensing process. Word of mouth may not work, because that plumber may have done A where I need B to be done.

  • Jeff Molby

    SC & VRB

    Of course it’s important to have some sort of rating system for tradesmen. Your assumption seems to be that the market wouldn’t provide such a thing.

  • Doug Mataconis


    There already are services like that in some parts of the country.

    The best known one that I’ve heard of is called Angie’s List. It’s not a rating system so much as it is a list of contractors, tradesmen, and other service providers who have been identified by their customers as providing good service. Sort of an expanded version of getting references from friends and family.

    My wife used it several times when she lived in Ohio in an older home where repairs were an issue. I’d trust a service like that long before I’d rely on a government agency merely telling me that someone was “licensed.”

  • Doug Mataconis


    On what basis do you assume that the skill level or trustworthiness of any contractor is “tested” in the licensing process ?

    I can tell you for a fact that it’s not and that I’ve represented a pretty fair number of people who have been the victims of incompetent contractors, or contractors who took their money and never did a lick of work.

    In nearly every case, those people had all the proper licenses from the relevant government agencies.

  • Nick M.

    Yeah, typically it is the business that holds the contractors license. Not each individual plumber within the company, that’d be pretty retarded. Plumbers might have to individual certifications (Med Gas, certain welding certs, etc.) – which also are typically administered by third party testing companies (crazy, I know).

    And of course the BA for the union is pissed. As a field engineer for a GC, I can say that union/non doesn’t matter, you get some guys that care and some that don’t. The bulk of them just show up for the paycheck.

  • VRB

    I wouldn’t look to licensing for trustworthiness, but I don’t know if word of mouth would convince me that the person would know what a gas fitting was. Let say the recommendations were only customers that had water problems. I would like to have an entity that would tell me that person has the qualifications to tell if that person could install a gas appliance. I realize that would not be a guarantee, but are other customers really qualified to give me that kind of information. Safety would be the important reasoning for licensing. That is what I would expect government to do. I don’t see good government as a biased observer. I think government should protect and defend my life, which to me includes safety as much as it would provide for defense. No matter what economic system a society has, with this many people, static resources and the current level of technology, anarchy cannot exist or it would be the war of the worlds. Certainly then, liberty would cease to exist.

  • Michael Micelli

    I just came up with another great idea. I’ll explan it on my website within a week. Thanks, guys.

  • Doug Mataconis


    Nobody’s talking about anarchy, we’re just questioning the idea, the rather naive idea actually, that you can depend on the state to ensure that professionals know what they’re doing.

  • tfr

    So there was this house we had wired by a licensed electrician, inspected by the town building inspector, all signed off nice and legal, in which lamps would get a little dimmer when the switch was flipped, some lights did not work at all, etc… TWO levels of government “protection” failed miserably. I ended up fixing it all myself.

  • Doug Mataconis


    I had a client who had a house that was built by a licensed contractor, wired by an licensed electrician, and inspected by the county inspector — and it burned to the ground thanks to fault wiring.

  • VRB

    Doug and tfr,
    The licensing system had not done it job. One house burns down another one doesn’t, the odds, doesn’t mean that you would have found the competent electrician another way.

  • tfr

    And the hell of it is, after your house burns, you can’t sue the town for faulty inspection, ‘cuz the law says you can’t! I don’t know why insurance companies haven’t jumped all over this.