Oklahoma has a licensing problem, with our licensing laws ranking as the 11th most burdensome nationwide. It’s to the point that we license occupations that very few other states do. That is the case for dental assistants, who are only licensed in 9 states.  Many states that are known for burdensome regulations, like New York, have decided a license for this occupation is not necessary, the same conclusion we have reached at the 1889 Institute.

Advocates of occupational licensing claim it protects consumers from bad actors and fly-by-night practitioners. However, this is generally not true. Dental assistants set up equipment, prepare patients for treatment, keep records, and schedule appointments. Their duties make them closer to administrative assistants than medical ones. While these jobs are important to the functioning of a dentist’s office, it’s unlikely any serious harm could arise from these duties. Rather than protect consumers, occupational licensing merely restricts the supply of labor in a licensed occupation.

Licensing is never justified unless there is a failure of civil law or free markets that makes it difficult for patrons to obtain information, educate themselves, and judge whether an occupation’s practitioners are competent. This almost seems to be the case for dental assistants. I mean, how can you be expected to know if a dental assistant is competent at coronal polishing or taking x-rays? But the truth is, the average consumer does not need to judge these things. Dental assistants are employed solely by dentists, who are well positioned to judge the capabilities of potential hires.  They are able to do so in the 41 states that do not license dental assistants and were able to do so in Oklahoma prior to when the license was enacted a mere 6 years ago.

Consider the situation a dental assistant from another state might find themselves in. We’ll call him Dale. Dale is an experienced dental assistant from Alabama. Recently, after seeing all Oklahoma has to offer, he decides to move here. But while looking for a job as a dental assistant, he runs into a problem that is all too common in Oklahoma – occupational licensing. Now, instead of providing the same services he did back in Alabama, Dale has to first get permission from an agency created to discourage new participants in the occupation. Even after Dale has gotten his permit, he is still restricted from performing many of the same duties he is experienced in until he receives further permission from the state.

The situation above is a common one in licensing. Experienced professionals are restricted from practice, and they are worse off for it. It also harms the consumer, as they have less choice, and the reduced competition reduces quality. Licensing limits the flexibility of professionals to the demands of the market. In the above example, Dale would be better off moving somewhere other than Oklahoma that doesn’t have laws licensing dental assistants or maybe just staying put.

Given that 41 states get by just fine without licensing dental assistants, it is hard to imagine why Oklahoma has chosen to do so. Perhaps the Oklahoma Society of Dental Assistants feared an influx of new dental assistants would lower their wages. Acting on these fears, they lobbied the Oklahoma legislature to create a license to keep out their competition. It is also possible they thought a licensing requirement would improve their professional image.

While eliminating a license is always the best course of action, there doesn’t appear to be much political will to do so in Oklahoma. Fortunately, the 1889 Institute has developed an alternative policy that would alleviate the woes of occupational licensing. Our paper, A Win-Win for Consumers and Professionals Alike: An Alternative to Occupational Licensing, outlines a system of private certification that would allow professional organizations to certify practitioners as competent in any occupation, and under certain consumer-friendly conditions, would allow them to compete with licensees. Under this policy, if the Oklahoma Society of Dental Assistants was concerned about the professional image of dental assistants, they could set certification criteria that assure that image. And they could do this without the state-sponsored monopolies created by licensing. But it won’t happen without a legislator to champion the idea.

Spencer Cadavero is a Research Associate at 1889 Institute and can be reached at scadavero@1889institute.org.