That interior design license? A product of crony capitalism, government greed

Let’s say that you have a knack for design. Friends constantly ask you to come over to their house and help them arrange their living room. You get immense pleasure from picking out curtains, or selecting a carpet, or evaluating different color palates and their impact on the look and feel of your home.

You’ve been at home with your young kids for a while, but you are ready to start earning some money. Maybe a little on the side just to help pay the bills at first, but eventually transitioning into a full-time career.

People have been telling you for ages that you should be an interior designer. You used to think of it as just a hobby of yours, but after helping a neighbor with the “feng shui” in his apartment, you start to give it some serious thought.

Why shouldn’t you help out some friends make the space around them more interesting and attractive? Why can’t you just go out, make a go of it, and see if you can build it into a business? It might change your life.

Well, you can’t.

In Maine, if you want to be an interior designer you must have a bachelor’s degree, complete 700 days of work training, pass an exam, and pay up to $200 in fees to obtain a license.

Why is that, exactly? Is a license for this profession somehow protecting the public from shag carpeting and pastels?

Well, maybe it is to protect us from being ripped off by people who will do a sub-standard job. But anyone who has ever had a bad plumber or dentist knows that a license is no guarantee of quality. It is simply a guarantee that the individual in question can jump through the necessary hoops.

Don’t believe me? Think about it for a minute. Ever get a bad haircut? Most people would answer, “several times,” yet every single person who butchered your hair had an occupational license.

If an unlicensed person also gave you a bad haircut, are you any more harmed than you were the last time you went to Supercuts?

Maine actively licenses at least 162 different occupations. As a proportion of the Maine workforce, one out of four Maine professionals works in a field that requires them to be licensed.

You would need a license to pack these sardines into a can. Photo from the Rockland Historical Society

Many of the licensed professions are ludicrous. Besides interior designers, we also license barbers, boxers, land surveyors, mixed martial arts competitors, and sardine packers.

Yes, you need a license to pack sardines in a can.

Log scalers — a profession that measures and estimates the value of logs and is only licensed in Idaho and Maine — need to demonstrate that they have two years of relevant work experience before they can legally practice here.

In each of these examples, a license is wholly unnecessary, and does nothing but provide a barrier to entry. If someone wants to try to market their skills and earn a living, why on Earth would we try to stop them?

Sadly, the answer is simple: protectionism. Current license holders benefit greatly from barriers in place, because it protects their market and blocks competition. They fear nimble, innovative approaches that could cut into their business.

The system as it is constituted today has no compassion for poverty-stricken people who can not meet the financial, training or educational licensure requirements. Their future prosperity and financial freedom are closed off to them before they even start their engine.

But perhaps worse than the elitist cronyism is the duplicitous state government and its hunger for the collected money.

Time after time after time, Maine’s legislature has used licensing as a slush fund to plug holes in the state budget and fund other priorities. In fact, this reality has been cited to me by lawmakers as the main reason that Maine will never pass occupational licensing reform.

State government’s never-ending appetite for spending has to be fed, and it is a lot easier to simply raise or maintain fees than it is to raise income or sales taxes. It is the insidious back door into funding your pet projects.

And so we are left with a warped and perverted system, full of crony capitalism and government greed.

Now, I’m not saying that occupational licensing should be eliminated entirely. Professions that have a direct and clear impact on the health and safety of the people of Maine should, in fact, require a license.

But for everything else? No. Licensing blocks competition. It prevents low-income people from pursuing potentially life-altering opportunities. It inflates the cost of goods and services.

You have the right to earn a living, and we should never get in the way of that.

Matthew Gagnon

About Matthew Gagnon

Matthew Gagnon, of Yarmouth, is the Chief Executive Officer of the Maine Heritage Policy Center, a free market policy think tank based in Portland. Prior to Maine Heritage, he served as a senior strategist for the Republican Governors Association in Washington, D.C. Originally from Hampden, he has been involved with Maine politics for more than a decade.