Radley Balko: Artificial Standards

Monday , March 24, 2008

By Radley Balko


Earlier this month, a bullying, cartel-like professional group met in New Orleans for its annual conference. One of the top items on the agenda was to discus new lobbying strategies to scare off the lowly folks who attempt to enter this particular profession without first paying the proper deference and dues to the industry's old guard. I'm speaking of course of the American Society of Interior Designers (ASID).

I'm not kidding.

Did you know that in Nevada it is illegal to move a large piece of furniture for someone else under the title of "interior designer"? In fact, 21 states and the District of Columbia have enacted "titling" regulations or registration requirements for people who want to arrange other people's furniture for a fee.

Under titling laws, you can still design someone else's house for payment, you just aren't permitted to advertise yourself as an "interior designer," which of course effectively kills any chance of starting an actual business.

But, titling laws are just a foot in the door.

In a 2006 report, the indispensable organization the Institute for Justice explained that ASID pushes for titling requirements only "as a first step toward lobbying for far more restrictive licensing laws."

A Forbes article in February reported that in some states, ASID is lobbying for states to pass laws stating that interior decorating can only be done by someone with a "four-year college degree," "a two-year apprenticeship," and who pays "a $720 fee to take an exam that only 49 percent now pass." IJ reports that of the four states that now require full-blown licensing for interior design, "three began with titling laws that, after industry pressure, evolved into licensing."

But it isn't just the pillow tossers (they hate it when you call them that).

According to a recent study from the Competitive Enterprise Institute, the professional florist's lobby (yes, there is one) has succeeded in enacting legislation in Louisiana that makes it illegal "for anybody to arrange two or more types of flowers without passing a largely subjective state licensing exam." The failure rate for the florist's exam is actually higher than that of the state bar exam. The CEI study warns that in theory, "a child could face a fine for picking a bouquet of flowers and selling it at a roadside stand."

The Economist reports that in Texas, veterinary groups are pushing to require "horse floaters" to obtain a veterinarian's license. Floaters specialize in filing down the teeth of horses. That's all they do. Requiring a vet's license would mean spending hundreds of thousands of dollars and several years in vet school. In other words, it would put floaters out of business. But that's the point — more tooth-filing fees for the state's veterinarians.

This sort of cartelish behavior is everywhere.

The funeral home industry is notorious for it. As are taxi and limousine services. IJ has been successful defeating laws in several states that would require African-American hair-braiders to obtain a beautician's license, which generally means thousands of dollars on cosmotology school, and accumulating hundreds of hours of training they don't need.

If you want to hang wallpaper in Georgia, you'll first need a state license.

Want to become a manicurist? If you live in California, be prepared to first sit through 600 hours of classroom training.

These laws tend to hit the poor especially hard. They put up expensive barriers to entry for people who want to start small businesses braiding hair, doing home repair, or offering manicures from their homes. They also drive up the costs of regulated services.

When cities grant taxi or limousine licenses to only a select few companies, the value of those licenses soars. In large cities like New York or Washington, D.C., a taxi medallion can be worth hundreds of thousands of dollars. That not only makes it difficult for low-income people to enter the market, it also limits competition, and drives up fares (though local governments often regulate fares, too).

Groups like ASID defend this nonsense with grandiose claims about upholding the integrity of the profession. They argue that legislation is necessary to protect consumers form fraudulent or amateurish decorators. But the occasional episode of MTV's Cribs not withstanding, there's simply little evidence that bad interior design is much of a problem.

The Institute for Justice found no statistically significant difference in the number of complaints to the Better Business Bureau in states that have adopted ASID recommendations versus states that hadn't.

In fact, there were actually more complaints filed in the regulated states. IJ also points out that five state agencies have studied the need for design regulation, and all five determined ASID-proposed regulation would produce no benefit to the public.

It's understandable why these groups would seek protection from state legislatures. They're becoming increasingly irrelevant.

In his book "An Army of Davids," Tennessee law professor and renowned blogger Glenn Reynolds shows how affordable technology, more leisure time, and the abundance of information available on the Internet are threatening increasingly anachronistic professions. Hobbyists can learn the tricks of many trades in weeks.

The gap between amateur and professional is closing. The Internet can eradicate old barriers like startup costs and overhead, and it can sharply reduce the cost of advertising and promotion. With a few clicks, a few weeks of study, and an avid interest, just about anyone can learn how to create an attractive bouquet of flowers, braid hair, or place a rug in a way that "really ties a room together."

This has the old guard running scared, so they're seeking sanctuary in state legislatures, pushing for laws that create unnecessary, artificial standards that puff up fake professions and chase out competitors.

Radley Balko is a senior editor for Reason magazine and maintains at Web log at