Both the federal government and state governments have long had an interest in regulating commerce in some capacities. From being able to tax transactions to ensuring all transactions are taking place legally, it’s important that some regulatory body keeps tabs on both buyers and sellers in order to adequately protect each from the other. Teddy Roosevelt made a name for himself in the Gilded Age busting up trusts that unfairly limited competition and price-gouged its buyers. In the 1960s, the US government stepped in and forced private businesses to serve black people and end their discriminatory business practices.
However, the government’s interest in licensing and certifications has recently come under fire for suppressing small business and making it harder for independent contractors, skilled tradespeople, and one-person businesses to get off the ground, and many states have seen grassroots movements calling for governments to lift the burdens of occupational licenses in certain industries.
The need for government oversight is clear and apparent in certain industries, most notably food service. Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle, published in 1906, brought to the general public’s attention what happens when the government — or some other supervising body — fails to monitor what goes into people’s foods. In it, Sinclair details the gut-wrenching corner cutting that took place in a meat-packing factory, including the abuses of workers and the non-meat items that made it into meat meant for human consumption. The public was so revolted by this expository novel that it lead to the passage of a few acts that allowed for better oversight of the industry, including what would later be called the Food and Drug Administration (FDA). To that end, the US has greatly benefitted from some government oversight of contractors and businesses to ensure that consumers are safe and that workers are properly trained and equipped in safety measures.
According to the Institute for Justice, though, the government’s desire to regulate has become gluttonous and imposes an undue burden on individuals who want to work. Whereas about one in twenty working Americans needed a license to work in 1950, about one in four do today — and those licenses are not free. Often, for a person to earn a license, they must prove that they took courses, pay for an examination, and annually renew their license. Some of this is welcomed — we take it for granted that our anesthesiologists are certified to knock patients out without killing them. Others, though, feel intrusive. From people who remove trees to travel guides, it seems everyone needs a license to do the smallest thing anymore.
As such, some coalitions have begun filing lawsuits alleging that the state has overstepped its bounds and is prohibiting some citizens from working by imposing such high prices on their rights to work. In North Carolina, a plaintiff successfully challenged a licensing requirement that had nothing to do with her business. Jasna Bukvic-Bhayani successfully challenged a state law that would have required her to be certified to perform and teach esthetics, even though all she wanted to do was makeup artistry — a move that saved her months in work and hundreds of dollars in equipment and classes.
Some legislators have either repealed or struck down legislation that would have erected even more barriers between workers and working. In one national example, some states wanted to require ethnic hair braiders to obtain a license, which would have proven costly to the mostly-female and often immigrant workers. With enough positive pressure, though, the laws failed to pass the state’s congress. More laws and suits will duke it out, but the issue of finding the right amount of government oversight without overstepping continues to be negotiated.