Like a Pope Gregory granting dispensation from sin to Crusaders, our local government has suspended the need for building repair permits in our flood ravaged city. In doing so our leaders admit what they never would in normal times. Permitting and building inspection are not public safety issues. Building permits simply keep track of property improvements for tax purposes. Building departments are like shepherds weighing and counting the herd.
If building permits benefited the public, a natural disaster would hardly be the time for their suspension. The only thing permitting protects us from is building inspectors. If there were any advantage in them, people would apply for permits voluntarily.
Eliminating the need for permits is a good idea. Local officials could help even more with recovery by suspending other wasteful regulations as well. Licensing comes to mind. On the way into town yesterday I saw a sign tied to a tree like a lynched horse thief. It said: “Unlicensed Contracting is a Felony in Florida.” That seems like fair warning to unordained tool bearers and their potential customers. Hire a worker without official permission and both your and whomever you hire face heavy fines and jail time. A hanged dummy wearing a tool belt and an “UNLICENSED” T-shirt might work better than the sign. Public floggings better still.
Like permitting, licensing is sold as protection for the public. Everyone knows the world is full of crooks, quacks and con men. Licensing is supposed to offer protection that laws against fraud do not. In reality research shows that licensing punishes the public while rewarding licensees.
Most prosecutions for unlicensed activity start with complaints by licensees. Except for those involving vindictiveness or spite, there are almost no complaints from members of the public who are supposedly enjoying lavish regulatory protection.
This is understandable when you realize that licensing is promoted by those who will be licensed. Nearly every private trade group vigorously lobbies for strict licensing of its own members. Regulators are usually members of the regulated profession. There is no surer way to limit competition. It’s an easy matter after licensing laws are passed to increase requirements, while exempting current licensees.
Most violations of licensing laws are minor civil matters. Many licenses are easy to get. After all, such jobs as training falcons, braiding hair, reading palms and breeding ferrets require licenses. Even the most reckless ferret breeding is no great danger to public welfare.
The more senselessly restrictive the law becomes, however, the more severe the penalties must be to scare people away from the protected profession. You’ve hit the big time when you can treat your unlicensed competitor like a murderer, rapist or thug. In Florida, real estate agents and building contractors (and probably others I don’t know about) have reached this lofty status. Licensing violations in those professions are felonies. I remember the gleeful mood in the real estate trade press when unlicensed activity achieved felony status. Whoopee, they wrote, now the public is really safe from us.
Unfortunately there is little in any licensing course to protect the public from rapacious greed or vaulting ambition, from sloth, incompetence or ethical indifference. I’ll never forget the 100 hours of training I took to become a licensed auctioneer. I spent most of my time chanting numbers in a sing-song faux-southern drawl. The interminable chanting often transported me to a vast astral plain of commercial absurdity but I never understood how my growing ability to babble numbers protected the public.
Licensees are no more likely than anyone else to be honest, loyal or even competent. The higher costs that result from restricted entry into licensed professions could be justified if there were any real quality benefits but most of the evidence shows no increase in the quality of work. Often consumers suffer real harm. For instance, more people get rabies where veterinarians are strictly licensed and more people are electrocuted in states where electricians enjoy heavily restrictive licensing protection.
Licensing also inhibits innovation. Often the crackpots and quacks that licensing seeks to exclude are an industry’s innovating pioneers. Thomas Edison, with no formal education, would never be licensed as an electrical engineer today. Frank Lloyd Wright would not even qualify to take the exam to be a certified architect. Clerics like Cotton Mather fought for inoculation against smallpox while doctors led the opposition.
Coping with disaster requires the best we have to offer one another. Suspending building permits is a great help. Suspending licensing laws and repealing price controls would help even more. There is little that would aid our recovery more than three month’s paid vacation for the entire city building department. The only real danger would be the depression, both economic and psychological, that would accompany their return.