Out of Control Policy Blog

The saga (and licensing) of Joe the Plumber

Election Day is finally upon us, and as I look back at the presidential campaign that, for so long, seemed never-ending, it seems that the real sensation was not Barack Obama or John McCain, or even Sarah Palin, but rather "Joe the Plumber." Samuel J. "Joe" Wurzelbacher became an overnight sensation when, during a campaign stop by Sen. Obama in Ohio, he had the audacity to question whether Obama's economic plan would raise his taxes. In reply, Sen. Obama offered his now-infamous "spread the wealth around" line. Thereafter, McCain held up Joe the Plumber as an example of the American everyman trying to better his position in life and concerned about losing more of his hard-earned wealth to the government. McCain referred to him numerous times during the final presidential debate, and has included him in some of his campaign rallies since. In defiance of his 15-minute limit on fame, Joe featured prominently throughout the remainder of the campaign. Even on the eve of the elections, he was included in McCain stump speeches and put in an appearance on CNN.

But if Joe the Plumber was to be a hero to some, he must be a villain to others. Enter the media. Background checks about the guy who had stood up to Barack Obama ensued, and it was discovered that he owed about $1200 in back taxes and that–gasp!–Joe the Plumber did not have a license to practice his trade. Notwithstanding the fact that one need not have a license in Toledo to be a plumber if he is an apprentice, as Joe appears to be, why must one seek a permission slip from the government to work in a legal occupation in the first place?

Some think that a government license provides a measure of legitimacy, but is this really the case? According to Thomas Joseph, business manager of UA Local 50 of the Plumbers, Steamfitters and Service Mechanics Union, whose national membership has endorsed Obama, "Joe the Plumber really isn't a plumber." There even arose an alternative "Joe the Plumber" in Indiana who supports Obama, and who claims to be a "real" plumber because he has a license. Mark Swaner is a training coordinator for the Plumbers and Steamfitters Local 157 in Terre Haute, and his union had yard signs printed up that read "The Real Joe the Plumber for Obama." (See the corresponding article here.) But if Joe is not a "real" plumber, then how does he continue to succeed in his line of work? Why hasn't his boss fired him for incompetence? Clearly, the answer is that competence does not necessitate a license, and a license does not guarantee competence.

As numerous economic studies have shown, government licensing standards do not improve consumer health and safety. In fact, oftentimes, licensing causes product or service quality and consumer safety to decrease. This is because licensing requirements are often arbitrary and not necessarily related to practical job skills or knowledge, and the false sense of security that a license provides causes people to be less discriminating about who they do business with. In addition, licensing raises the costs of doing business, thereby reducing competition and allowing the licensees to charge more than they could in a free market. These artificially high prices have consequences, causing people to do more dangerous do-it-yourself work, reduce their medical visits, or resort to black markets. Studies have shown, for example, that electrocution rates are higher in places where there are stricter electrician licensing laws and states with stricter dental licensing laws had the highest incidence of poor dental hygiene.

No, the true aim of licensing regulations is to restrict competition and cartelize an industry so that the licensees can increase their profits by reducing their competition, which is why licensing laws are virtually always imposed or made stricter at the behest of the current or would-be licensees themselves, and why these interests are typically "grandfathered" in, so that they do not have to meet the standards that they impose on their future competition. You see, licensing laws are borne of special interests, not the public interest.

Thanks, by the way, to John J. Miller for his recent blog post ("The Corner" at National Review Online) and Bill Steigerwald for his op-ed article, which both addressed this topic and plugged my occupational licensing study from last year. For a more in-depth look at the evils of occupational licensing laws, how voluntary certification is a much better alternative, and a survey of which jobs are licensed in each of the 50 states, see the study here: "Occupational Licensing: Ranking the States and Exploring Alternatives." A summary of the study is available at http://www.reason.org/ps361polsum.pdf.

P.S. The study includes a list of some of the more ridiculous licensing requirements in the nation, such as for elevator operators in Massachusetts, florists in Louisiana, and reptile/amphibian catchers in Michigan. The list also includes manure applicators in Iowa. I was recently informed that this listing is incomplete, however. Manure applicators also need a license in Minnesota, Missouri, Ohio, and Pennsylvania, and similar licensing requirements are under discussion in Indiana, Michigan, Washington, and Wisconsin. (Thanks to Kevin in Wisconsin for the info.) In consideration of Election Day, perhaps we should extend these requirements to all those seeking public office!

Adam Summers is Senior Policy Analyst


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