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Lawmakers Foul Out on Occupational Licensing—Again

Oklahoma’s got a bad occupational licensing problem, worse than other states. We don’t just regulate too many occupations (almost as many as Kansas and Missouri combined), we also overregulate; our licensing laws are the 11th most burdensome nationwide. What concerns me most isn’t either of those points, though. It’s that many of our harshest, most suffocating regulations target occupations that no thinking lawmaker should be legislating about in the first place.

To illustrate this prevalent and truly bizarre phenomenon, take 1889’s latest report, which examines the Therapeutic Recreation Act. The report finds that the Act, which mandates getting government permission to sell or advertise recreational therapy services, is flagrantly unjustified. The practice targeted by the law simply isn’t dangerous or technical enough to warrant a license, not even close.

If any reader is clueless, such as a lawmaker, rec therapy is an allied healthcare profession whose specialists promote the health and overall welfare of patients coping with or recovering from an illness, disability, or injury by helping them enjoy a hobby. Specialists may use games, crafts, animals, music or other fun leisure activities to advance this goal. But they’re not just summer camp counselors. They view themselves as serious, legitimate professionals, and indeed they work in serious environments, like hospitals and rehab clinics. But they’re not doctors or nurses. They don’t prescribe meds or make diagnoses or handle needles. No technical medical schooling is needed for their job. What they do need is patience, good verbal skills, and enough physical fitness to lift the occasional bulky wheelchair. In short, the practice is totally innocuous.

Which is why the Act is so unjust. The case for licensing is typically strongest (albeit still often weak overall) when the practitioners in question can potentially cause real harm if they commit malpractice, like airline pilots or pharmacists. That is, a licensing law, as with all laws, is supposed to serve the common good. But the Act doesn’t do that. No one is kept safer by it. No consumer is made surer of the quality of their purchases, given how transparent the practice already is. Who then, does the law benefit?

Affluent, established specialists, that’s who. Obtaining a rec therapy license is so difficult that since the Act took effect in 2010, the number of active specialists in our state has plunged 28 percent. With that decline in competition came a handsome wage increase for the specialists who could afford the time and money investment to acquire legal permission to stay in business. Laws that serve private interests at the expense of consumers are absolutely unjustifiable, and this is such a law.

But that’s not to say concerned practitioners deserve no voice. Lawmakers should acknowledge with Aristotle that humans are social animals. We cherish our churches, schools, and families for the sense of dignity and identity that accompanies membership within them. For that same legitimate reason, we cherish our guilds and professional circles, which transmit old knowledge to their new members, and confer exclusive honors and titles on them. It’s actually a fine idea to offer legal protection for this tradition, to enshrine it in the law, but only if it can be done without creating artificial monopolies that restrict economic opportunities for disadvantaged populations.

Fortunately, 1889 has written elsewhere about how to design just such a system, one based on private and voluntary certification. Such a system would allow anyone, disadvantaged or otherwise, to seek responsible financial opportunities where they exist, while also offering privately certified practitioners legal protection against those who would fraudulently claim membership in their guild. Lawmakers should act fast to install this win-win solution.

Luke Tucker is a PhD student in Philosophy at the University of Oklahoma.

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