August 6, 2015 3:22PM

White House Cites Cato in Report on Occupational Licensing

Occupational licensing needlessly regulates scores of workers in the United States. Indeed, despite years of criticisms from economists, the percentage of workers required to hold a license has risen substantially in recent years. The Cato Institute has been talking about the problem for years. But some of our readers might be surprised to see the latest critics: A recent White House report critiquing and evaluating  licensing requirements, Occupational Licensing: A Framework for Policymakers. We're particularly pleased that the report cited both an essay in Cato’s monthly online magazine, Cato Unbound, and one of the entries in Cato’s online forum, “Reviving Economic Growth,” which will soon be published as an ebook.  

The White House report, which was prepared by the Department of the Treasury Office of Economic Policy, the Council of Economic Advisers, and the Department of Labor, documented the massive growth of licensing in the last few decades. Over a quarter of U.S. workers now need licenses to do their jobs, and the percent of workers who need state-issued licenses has increased five-fold since the 1950s. The report concluded that this can harm employment opportunities and inflate costs for consumers. It also disproportionately affects certain populations, including immigrants and anyone with a criminal history.

The report cited Mercatus Center scholars Tyler Cowen and Alex Tabarrok, who argued against the effectiveness of licensing in “The End of Asymmetric Information” for Cato Unbound. “Yelp, Angie’s List, and Amazon Reviews all make it easy for past buyers to report their observations on seller quality and for future buyers to observe a seller’s accumulated reputation,they wrote. Thus, they said, one of licensing’s supposed benefits, helping consumers identify quality work, is becoming obsolete.

A few pages later, the Framework for Policymakers cited Cato’s growth forum, where Dean Baker of the Center for Economic Policy Research made the case for freer trade for both pharmaceutical drugs and foreign-born physicians, who face high licensing barriers in the United States. Baker argued that lowering these barriers would improve access to services for middle- and low-income consumers.

Throughout the Framework, the authors also extensively referenced the work of Morris M. Kleiner, one of the premier critics of occupational licensing, whose work has been published in Cato’s Regulation magazine, and the work of the Institute for Justice.

The White House report nicely dovetails with a new study from Brink Lindsey, Cato’s vice president for research, which identifies occupational licensing reform as one of a few key issues with the potential to unite Americans across the political spectrum—whether progressive, conservative, or libertarian. While the White House report is by no means a coup, it may be a sign that critics of occupational licensing are finally gaining traction.