Wednesday, January 14, 2009

Infected Dirt and Horse Massages

I have previously written about occupational licensing as method by which those within a profession use coercion to limit competitors and increase their own income. A recent article in The Freeman provides further evidence, and shows how absurd licensing laws can be.

In Louisiana it is illegal to sell and arrange flowers without a permit from the government. An appeals court upheld the licensing requirement because it might help protect the public from "infected dirt". As an avid gardener, I'm not certain what "infected dirt" is, but I certainly don't need a legislator protecting me from it. Are they going to outlaw hibiscus next because they attract aphids? And I have never bought a flower arrangement that came in dirt, which is more evidence that the Louisiana legislature (and the appellate court) has its head somewhere much more odoriferous than "infected dirt".

The silliness doesn't end there. The state of Maryland threatened Mercedes Clemens with thousands of dollars in fines and criminal prosecution unless she quit massaging horses. Interest groups managed to pass a bill that requires four years of veterinary school for anyone who wishes to massage horses. They passed this requirement despite the fact that veterinary schools do not teach how to massage horses. Clemens is a licensed human-massage therapist and certified in equine massage. (I have a cat who enjoys massages-- I wonder if I need a license to massage her.)

Occupational licensing is always defended as a means of protecting the public from unscrupulous businesses. But the real crime is that such laws prevent decent people--and very qualified people in the case of Mercedes Clemens--from earning an honest living.

The right to life--which is the most fundamental of all rights--means the right to take the actions necessary to sustain and enjoy one's life. It means the freedom to act without interference from others, so long as one respects the mutual rights of others. To deny an individual that right is to deny him the means to sustain his life. Yet, life requires action to create the values necessary to live. If one cannot take the necessary actions, one can only live as a parasite. And it is dependency that government controls such as occupational licensing are intended to ultimately foster.

The justification for licensing--to protect the public-- treats individuals as criminals before the fact. An individual is considered incompetent and untrustworthy until he proves otherwise. He must meet whatever arbitrary criteria the state establishes, and if he doesn't he is prohibited from working in his chosen field. He is prohibited from earning a living until the state grants him permission to do so.

The flip side of this is that it treats consumers as bumbling fools. The implication of "protecting the public" is that the public must be protected from its own decisions and actions. Individuals are not competent to choose who should arrange their flowers or massage their horse. We must have the state make that determination for us. This paternalism is insulting on every level-- it regards all individuals as children.

The fault does not lie entirely with legislators. The public--or at least portions of the public--demands such regulations and controls. Each special interest group fights to protect its little piece of turf and impose its values on the rest of society. And at the same time, hundreds of other groups are doing the same. As legislators cave to the demands of group after group, the rights of all individuals are slowly eroded.

The erosion of individual rights coincides with an erosion of individual responsibility. If we are incapable of judging for ourselves, we cannot be responsible for those few decisions we are allowed to make. Legislators and the court system are more than willing to absolve individuals for any personal responsibility. It's not your fault you spilled coffee in your lap--it's the fault of the business that you voluntarily drove to and from whom you voluntarily purchased coffee. It's not your fault that you are fat--it's the fault of that burger joint that you went to five times a day and super sized the fries. It's not your fault that you can't find a job--it's the fault of a racist system that refuses to hire unskilled, illiterate ex-convicts.

It can sometimes be easy to blame legislators for passing inane laws or the courts for unprincipled rulings. But in a very real sense they do reflect the "will of the people". They are reflecting the ideas that dominate the culture. If we want to change the laws that are passed or the rulings issued by the courts, then we must change the ideas that dominate our culture. Then, and only then, will we get sensible legislators and judges. Only then will the rights of individuals be protected.


Burgess Laughlin said...

You have very neatly identified the chain of cause and effect. In my wording:
1. Ideas in the culture.
2. Voters holding those ideas.
3. Voters electing legislators to match those ideas.
4. Legislators enacting laws based on those ideas.
5. Those laws victimizing some individuals.

As you indicate, it is a serious misunderstanding to blame legislators as if they were the First Cause of problems in society.

Thank you.

Brian Phillips said...

Legislators are certainly responsible for their share of inane ideas. But voters often put all of the blame on the legislators, and refuse to take any responsibility.