September 14, 2009

Atrocious Article About Occupational Licensure From the Chicago Tribune

One of my favorite newspapers is the Chicago Tribune, but this past weekend they it published a god-awful story about the harm caused by unlicensed movers in Chicago. And the article — in theory it was a news story rather than an opinion piece — really does mean to use the term “harm,” because the reporter just assumes from the get-go that licensing is a good thing for everyone involved and does not even consider potential counterarguments. The reporter uses the severely loaded term “fly-by-night” three times to describe unlicensed movers, and not just when quoting others.

I discussed this article with two of my best friends while returning from a golf vacation in Michigan yesterday. Although both of them, as lawyers, work in a heavily licensed profession, each thought the example provided in the article amounted to government control run amok. (As an aside, each also agrees that their own profession is overly regulated, but neither went so far as to support totally ending licensure for attorneys. Even I don’t go that far for that particular profession, so we all basically agreed. Given that licensing leads to higher costs, which can then lead to a shortage, I will change my opinion if you can find me one person in the entire country who thinks the modern United States does not have enough lawyers.)

But back to the article. There are so many terrible quotes that I have to settle on just one or two. How about:

Going with an unlicensed mover leaves consumers little or no recourse if the outfit overcharges, items go missing or there’s damage, Bonnema said.

How about the entire civil court system at your disposal for each of these examples? Has the reporter ever heard of small claims court? The sentence should have read “leaves consumers less recourse,” because there is no licensing board to complain to, but there are still plenty of options for the market to work itself out. One such market-correcting force is discussed at the end of the article, but in a negative — not positive — manner. While discussing somebody who had a bad experience with an unlicensed mover, the article reports:

A customer posted a complaint about him on Craigslist after chairs were damaged during a move.

Traditionally, service-oriented businesses increase market share through the word of mouth of trusted people. You might be more inclined to select a plumber because of your neighbor’s recommendation. Now, websites like Craigslist, which often have extensive review sections, are playing more of that role in the market. This is something to be celebrated, not feared. (Note: I wussed out on linking to the “Craigslist” section that would have been the funniest.)

Nowhere does the article discuss the positive aspects of consumers having more choices at lower prices for this particular service. Nor does it offer any criticism of this (emphasis added):

The Illinois Commerce Commission employs 10 police officers in the northern region, four more than last year, said Craig Baner, commander of operations. The officers flood high-traffic moving areas during the busy months and target unlicensed movers.

Doesn’t anyone else think that perhaps the resources of 10 police officers could be put to better use in Chicago than in tracking down unlicensed movers? Am I on crazy pills, here? Ten cops for moving-specific licensing issues!

I could go on and on, but I’ll end here after directing you to some of the more scholarly work we’ve released about the harmful effects of occupational licensure in Missouri and across the country.

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