In a way, America at least partly owes its independence to the conviction that granting exclusive market privileges is an illegitimate function of government. In a free country, no-one has an exclusive right to a market over anyone else.
Yet, two and a half centuries after the American Revolution, the old-fashioned kind of monopoly, wherein government grants exclusive privileges, is experiencing something of a revival. In Oklahoma, legally bestowed market advantages are commonplace, and take many forms such as Tax Increment Finance Districts, various special tax credits unrelated to core government functions, and occupational licensing.
Today, people use the word “monopoly” to refer to a business that has achieved total domination in a market as the result of laissez-faire processes, but not so long ago, a “monopoly” was a business that was bestowed with artificial market-domination and insulated from competition by a monarch. That’s the kind of monopoly conferred on the East India Company for most of its history. It is perhaps best known for its legal monopoly on tea, which backfired with the Tea Act of 1773 and precipitated the Boston Tea Party, an early skirmish in the American Revolution.
Today’s government-granted economic privileges are more subtle, but no less worthy of a free people’s condemnation. Take Oklahoma’s Massage Therapy Practice Act of 2016, for example, about which I recently wrote a paper for 1889 Institute. It creates a massage therapist license, meaning anyone who wants to work in the industry first needs the state’s permission to do so.
But obtaining a massage therapy license is tedious and expensive. Among other things, applicants must (1) satisfy a 500-hour formal education requirement, which can take 50 weeks (a year) and cost up to $18,000, and (2) pass the Massage and Bodywork Licensing Exam, which costs $195 and must be taken multiple times by a third of Oklahomans who attempt it.
Most don’t have that kind of money or time, so it’s unsurprising the number of massage therapists has dwindled by almost a fifth since the Act passed, sharply reversing a decade-long growth trend in the industry. Further, every state bordering Oklahoma (except Arkansas) has more massage therapists than Oklahoma. Kansas, with no license requirement, has twice as many practitioners as Oklahoma, despite being half Oklahoma’s size.
But of course, this is good news for the established practitioners whom the Act grandfathered and for affluent applicants who can afford to invest the time and money. Less competition means higher prices for them.
Now, not all occupational licensing laws are intentionally anti-competitive. Licensing is justified when an occupation is both (1) potentially dangerous and (2) so complicated that customers can’t easily judge the quality of the service they’re receiving. That’s why many consider physician licensing justified; the profession is indeed potentially dangerous, and average customers, lacking expertise in medicine, are limited in their ability to assess the qualifications of physicians.
However, massage therapy isn’t dangerous at all. Frankly, to claim that massage therapist licensing somehow keeps the public safe is laughable. Safe from what, exactly? A google search for massage accidents produces a few bizarre examples, but none of them are remotely likely to recur, and licensing couldn’t prevent any of them in the first place.
Of course, some support for the Act stems from a desire to combat human trafficking, which pervades the wider massage industry. However, while that’s a nice goal, the idea that licensing will somehow advance that goal begs the question: Why would a trafficker be more afraid to break a licensing law than an anti-trafficking law? By its own admission, the Massage Therapy Advisory Board (MTAB) is neither authorized nor equipped to police trafficking in the industry. Further, according to Polaris, a leading anti-trafficking organization, licensing laws unfairly target victims of trafficking, rather than the perpetrators. Clearly, licensing is the wrong answer to the human trafficking problem.
Why, then, are massage therapists licensed? Perhaps lobbyists who support the Act seek not to benefit the public but to revive the antiquated practice of legally granting market privileges to some practitioners at the expense of both other, prospective practitioners and consumers. That hypothesis is supported by the fact that the Oklahoma chapter of the American Massage Therapy Association has opposed reducing the formal education requirement from 500-hours to 300-hours on the grounds that such a reduction would cause a “crisis” for massage schools, as if government exists to ensure the financial security to massage schools.
Some Oklahomans still believe that practicing a perfectly safe occupation, in pursuit of the happiness that self-reliance and work produce, is a God-given right, not a privilege bestowed at the state’s behest. According to the MTAB, this viewpoint is “radical,” but a better word would be “revolutionary.” An immediate repeal of massage therapy licensing by the Oklahoma Legislature would be a first step in showing that legislators take God-given rights seriously.