In Oklahoma, a license is required to work as a polygraph examiner (a professional who applies lie-detector tests), and it is not at all obvious why.

Generally, an occupation is licensed if it is obviously in the public’s interest to prevent potential bad actors from practicing. So, for example, it is argued that doctors must be licensed because, otherwise, some idiot might open a hospital in his garage and really hurt someone. And it is argued that accountants must be licensed because, otherwise, some college-dropout might offer to do accounting for an unsuspecting mom-and-pop shop, tell them their numbers look great (when, in fact, they don’t), and cause them to go bankrupt.

In short, occupational licensing is supposed to either (1) prevent real, tangible harm, or (2) assure customers that their service-provider is trustworthy. However, interestingly, licensing polygraph examiners does not accomplish either of those goals because polygraph examiners do not do anything remotely dangerous (they don’t use chemicals, break the skin, or subject anyone to discomfort or uncleanliness), nor is their practice very complicated (a short YouTube video can explain how to apply a lie-detector test). The absolute worst thing that a lie-detector test can do is produce a false-positive and assign guilt to an innocent person. We wouldn’t want an incompetent practitioner to destroy a good marriage or cause the termination of a loyal government employee, now would we?

No, but even if licensing really can guarantee that service-providers are competent, the false-positive problem still exists. The absolute best polygraph examiner in the world can’t guarantee perfect accuracy (or even half-good accuracy) because the lie-detector test itself is highly unreliable. It simply doesn’t work very well. According to the U.S. Supreme Court, the rate at which the test fails is about the same as the rate at which a coin-toss produces heads. (That is why the test is not allowed as evidence in most courts and is outright banned in all military courts.)

Therefore, licensing polygraph examiners makes about as much sense as licensing baseball players. The goal of a batter is to get hits, but it is easier said than done. An excellent hitter is still very unreliable. He’s just marginally less unreliable than a bad hitter. In the same way, a good polygraph examiner is still very bad at detecting lies. He’s just not quite as unreliable as a bad polygraph examiner.

So, there is no reason at all why the state of Oklahoma should be in the business of deciding who is allowed to try his hand at detecting lies. There is no public-interest justification whatsoever. And yet, it is indeed illegal to fail to obtain a license. Even more puzzling, the requirements imposed on license applicants are unnecessarily excessive. Acquiring a license takes several years and costs tens of thousands of dollars. In fact, it is much faster and easier to become a paramedic, despite paramedics needing much higher skill and facing much higher stakes on the job.

Not only are the requirements obviously unnecessary; they don’t even make sense. For example, an applicant needs one of either (a) a four-year degree of any kind, or (b) five years of relevant experience. That means that a philosophy major would qualify for a license over someone with four years of actual, relevant experience (one year short of the requirement).

Ultimately, it seems much more likely that polygraph examiners are licensed not because it is in the public’s interest but because it is in the interest of lobbyists. After all, licensing makes it very difficult for new people to enter the occupation. Less competition means established service-providers can raise their prices with impunity. It’s good for them, but it is bad for the rest of us (consumers and job-seekers).

The state should not involve itself in the monopolizing efforts of established practitioners of any trade. Likewise, polygraph examiners should not be licensed.

by Luke Tucker, 1889 Institute Intern and PhD candidate in Philosophy