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Is it surprising that conservatives don’t complain more about occupational licensing? On the one hand it’s not, because economists themselves don’t seem to think it’s much of a big deal. In their 2009 paper, Morris Kleiner and Alan Kreuger point out that since 2000 no articles on the issue had been written in what are considered some of the top economic journals: AER, JPE, QJE, Econometrica. In the leading labor economics journals, Industrial and Labor Relations Review and the Journal of Labor Economics, only one article on had appeared. In contrast, there were 16 articles on labor unions in just those labor journals. In a survey of five labor economics textbooks Stephenson and Wendt found that occupational licensing took up a combined total of 10 pages, whereas there were 7 chapters on unions. Clearly the profession is neglecting the issue, so why shouldn’t conservatives?
On the other hand, we have the following graph which shows unionization versus occupational licensing using data from Morris Kleiner*:
Over the last 70 years, occupational licensing come to dominate unionization as a labor market restriction, with growth in the former accelerating in recent years. The most recent estimates are that 30% of the labor force is required to have occupational licensing by a government agency, compare to around 13% that are unionized. Estimates of the impact of licensing on wages are about 10% to 15%, which is comparable to the typical estimates of the union wage premium.
So occupational licensing has the same affect on wages and is more pervasive than unionization; this tells me that conservatives should care a lot about. So why don’t they? One reason may be that they believe licensing increases quality. As I wrote yesterday, in my post on why liberals should care about occupational licensing, the evidence suggests this is not the case. But I don’t think this fact is generally appreciated.
One explanation is that, in contrast to unionism, licensing typically requires workers to jump through some impressive, expensive, and time consuming hoops, which certainly makes it seem like it should increase service quality. Also, one can certainly imagine that for many occupations there is some theoretically optimal non-zero level of licensing, but that public choice problems –highlighted here by Matt Yglesias– make that impossible.
Many conservatives may not grasp the public choice problem, and instead have too much trust in the institutions that set licensing standards. But these are mandatory government institutions, which conservatives should be skeptical of and instead favor free market, optional ones. At the very least they should favor mandatory testing, registration, and certification which allows people to work in an occupation even if they fail, but without the “Government Certified” stamp of approval.
Dean Baker’s hypothesis is that conservatives, journalists, and other professionals not complaining about occupational licensing is about class; specifically, the professional class. He argues that “free traders” only want free trade in low-skilled labor, and not high-skilled labor like doctors and other professionals. This is why they don’t complain when trade agreements come with restrictions on professional labor markets, like those on foreign doctors, but they do complain when they come with restrictions on low-skilled labor.
Even more puzzling, he argues, is that people are more concerned about restrictions on low-skilled trade between countries than on high-skilled trade between states:
The “free-trade” crew want to have a single set of standards for all forms of merchandise traded all over the world, but it has apparently escaped their attention that a lawyer from New York can’t practice across the river in New Jersey.
I don’t necessarily believe Dean’s diagnosis that free-traders really want is “cheap nannies”, and that their motivations are selfish. For one thing he frequently charges journalists with this, but are governmental barriers even among the top 10 things stopping a significant number of immigrants from putting journalists out of jobs? I do think that there is some sort of professionalism bias occurring, but it’s a bias towards believing that high-skilled labor market restrictions are for everyone’s benefit, not just their own.
In any case, whatever their motivations I think conservatives should care more about occupational licensing because it prevents free trade between the states, increases protectionism in professional services, and is a labor market restriction that is as expensive as and more pervasive than unions.
My final comment in this two-part post on occupational licensing is that I would like to see the ideologically diverse individuals and institutions who oppose occupational licensing to work together on this issue. This could be co-sponsoring papers, panels, or entire research programs. Dean Baker at the liberal CEPR, many at the libertarian Reason Foundation, and Matt Yglesias at the liberal Center for American Progress are on the same side and have written passionately about this issue. So why not a CEPR, CAP, Reason joint research program on occupational licensing? Just give me a call when you start handing out research grants.