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Occupational Licensing & Antitrust: Legal Licensing or Occupational Cartel?

Occupational Licensing & Antitrust: Legal Licensing or Occupational Cartel? published on

Occupational licensing is an interesting phenomenon. Governments (state and local) create certification boards (typically made up of industry participants) that set licensing standards and qualifications for persons wanting to work in those occupations. Ostensibly, these restrictions are intended to correct for the information asymmetry between consumers and professionals, where consumers may not be able to assess the quality (or ability) of the professional independently before hiring them. Think medical associations for doctors and bar associations for lawyers at the state level, or licensing for plumbers and electricians at the local level.

But occupational licensing also serves as a way of restricting competition in a profession by limiting the number of people who are able to provide the goods or services under the board’s purview. And as we know, reducing supply in the market increases the prices consumers pay (and the professionals receive). For instance, a medical board may limit the number of doctors who will be “board certified” in a given year. A private investigator licensing board may set standards to reduce the number of licensed (and legal) PIs. Or a state dental board might prohibit non-dentists from performing teeth-whitening services in competition with dentists.

That last one is the basis of a case coming before the US Supreme Court next week. The US Federal Trade Commission (FTC) brought antitrust charges against the North Carolina Board of Dental Examiners for conspiring to restrain competition in the teeth whitening business. The Dental Examiners board asserts they are exempted from antitrust law under the “state action doctrine.” The Supreme Court is being asked to determine if–and under what circumstances–state occupational licensing boards are exempt from antitrust laws. Eric Fraser offers a nice preview of the arguments in the case over on SCOTUSblog.

This could be an important case for licensing boards across the country. It should be fun to watch and interesting to see how the Court delineates the lines of necessary government oversight and the degree to which an overwhelming public interest needs to be justified.

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