Great care must be taken in repealing occupational licensing laws. No, not care in which licensing regimes are repealed or how quickly we are rid of them. They can all go, post haste (yes, that includes doctors and lawyers). Licensing hurts the economy to the tune of $200 Billion each year. A practitioner in a licensed field can expect to charge an unearned premium of 10-12 percent over his unlicensed peers. And licensing has shown almost no benefits in terms of improving public safety. The small benefits – such as a shorthand indicating which practitioners have received a minimum amount of training – could be better achieved through private certification without the economic harms visited by licensing regimes. 

No, the care that must be taken is in the unintended consequences of repealing individual licenses. There are times when groups of practitioners will ask the government to regulate them not because they want those sweet monopoly profits (though surely they realize such a fringe benefit) but because they fear that without such a license they will be swept into another licensed profession’s scope of practice. Many licensing boards, especially those covering a profession in which the scope of practice is closely related to the scope of practice of other licensed professions contain special waivers for other licensed professionals. So a licensed physician, social worker, or counselor, working within their sphere of expertise, will not be held to have practiced some other occupation unlicensed.

If the legislature were to eliminate chiropractic licenses tomorrow, by Wednesday the Oklahoma Medical Board would be overrun with complaints about unlicensed practice of medicine. By Friday Physical Therapists would probably be circling as well. Both groups would see a way to eliminate a whole class of competitors, which would allow them to charge higher rates.

Since most of the state licensing boards are dominated by practitioners fears of being swallowed up by a competing board may be justified. It’s easy to imagine a group of clinical psychologists getting together and declaring that only they have the requisite knowledge to practice music therapy, given the known effects of music on mood and brain activity. Who would want to argue with such an esteemed group of experts? Especially when the penalty for unlawful practice of psychiatry comes at a price of $500 and up to 6 months in jail per day of violation.

As the legislature looks to repeal licensing regimes, it should consider these scope of practice issues. Rather than leaving a profession wholly unprotected in the face of a more powerful state-granted cartel (one recognizes their power from the fact that they will remain in place, while the less powerful regime is properly disposed of), the legislature should consider carving out the profession as not falling under the scope of practice of the powerful cartel.

This protection should be easy to give. The licensed occupation’s definition and scope of practice could be left in place. The remaining law would then be replaced with a simple statement that anyone performing the functions described shall not be guilty of practicing any other licensed occupation without a license. To ensure that overeager cartel bosses don’t encroach, the law should indicate that the definition is to be construed broadly, so that that only someone operating well outside that definition might be violating the protectionist regime of the still-licensed occupation.

Of course, none of this protection would be necessary if the legislature would adopt wholesale occupational licensing reform. 1889 has proposed a private certification law that would allow competing groups (competing is a key word here) to certify a given industry. Anyone who is certified by such a group is exempted from state licensure laws.

In the mean time, safeguarding newly-unlicensed practitioners will allow Oklahoma consumers to realize the benefits of the deregulated profession: a significant discount on valuable services.

Mike Davis is a Research Fellow at 1889 Institute. He can be reached at mdavis@1889institute.org.

The opinions expressed in this blog are those of the author, and do not necessarily reflect the official position of 1889 Institute.