If we’re going to celebrate Labor Day — and the American worker — properly, we really need to take a look at what’s holding workers back. As CR’s Chris Pandolfo points out, Labor Day isn’t the proto-socialist festival that’s sold to many children through government school curricula.
We shouldn’t sneer at Labor Day; after all, work does provide meaning to life and should therefore be celebrated. But probably the biggest impediment to American labor these days is the government itself, which makes it difficult to engage in meaningful work through over-regulation. And there is no more easily visible example of this than the ridiculous and onerous barriers that occupational licensing requirements place on would-be entrepreneurs.
Take a look at what our economy has become. Thanks to technological innovation, our markets have never been more transparent. Uber and AirBnB have revolutionized public transit and accommodations, and similar adaptations are coming to several other areas of industry and enterprise.
But a 2015 study by the Obama administration found that the licensing requirements imposed on people who want to start their own businesses have increased fivefold since the 1950s. What this shakes out to at the street level is a country where, in some places, it takes a blessing from Uncle Gubmint to braid hair, thread eyebrows, walk dogs, give tours, give a massage, or for a kid to open a lemonade stand.
For crying out loud, you need four different licenses to shine shoes in Washington, D.C.
What does that mean? The enterprising American who sees a market need and wants to fill it is often hamstrung before she even gets started because of the miles of bureaucratic and financial hoops. Again, four different licenses to shine shoes. Why should there be any barrier to entry for that business more than the cost of a cloth, a brush, and a can of shoe polish?
There are those who clamor about consumer protection as the reason for these sorts of licenses, saying that they protect people from those who would rip them off or provide a shoddy service. It’s not an absurd concern to have. But just look around. Any rip-off artist or crappy vendor now has a wide range of crowdsourced review services to contend with.
Markets have always been capable of voluntarily regulating themselves, but they’ve never been more capable than now. Furthermore, while some of these concerns make sense in areas like, say, dentistry, who do they think they’re fooling with such stringent controls on hair-braiding and dog-walking? It brings to mind one of C.S. Lewis’ best quotes:
Of all tyrannies, a tyranny sincerely exercised for the good of its victims may be the most oppressive. It would be better to live under robber barons than under omnipotent moral busybodies. The robber baron’s cruelty may sometimes sleep, his cupidity may at some point be satiated; but those who torment us for our own good will torment us without end for they do so with the approval of their own conscience.
So, fire up the grill, soak up the last bit of your summer, be thankful for a meaningful job if you’re blessed enough to have one, and remember: If we really want people to work, they ought to be freer to do so.