EDITORIAL: Economic cost of red tape should not be overlooked

Feb. 01, 2013 @ 05:00 AM

With the increasing number of occupational licenses being mandated, we can foresee the day when a license could be required to mow our own lawn.

Originally, “red tape” referred to the red ribbon used to bind official documents. Over the last couple of centuries, it has come to have a much more troubling meaning. Now it denotes the frustration and disappointment caused by burdensome hurdles established through government bureaucracies. We call it “red tape” when bureaucratic rules hinder action or decision making. “Red tape” takes place in government and businesses. “Red tape” in businesses is generally a result of rules imposed by some level of government.

Before we complain about the cost of a haircut next time, let us consider the hoops that a barber might have to jump through before we sat down in his chair. There are no fewer than six N.C. Board of Barber Examiners. A different board is set up to deal with apprentices, instructors, registered certificates, school permits, shop permits and student permits.

Becoming a brain surgeon might be more difficult, but less frustrating.

Those who grew up on farms a few decades ago probably find most of these licenses downright laughable. When living almost an hour from the nearest town, it wasn’t likely that a farmer would wait 24 hours to have a licensed mechanic come to repair a tractor or other equipment sitting in a half-plowed field. Instead, a blacksmith or a shade-tree mechanic perhaps just 10 minutes down the road performed the repairs.

Then, there was always at least one farmer who served as the community’s unlicensed veterinarian. He arrived with a black satchel containing a pair of thick, black gloves and bottles of kerosene, castor oil, cod liver oil and other foul-smelling potions. No one asked to see his license before he started trying to save the life of the milk cow. This friend and neighbor didn’t leave until the cow was on her feet or dead.

Fast-forward to today, when the government wants our fingernails clipped only by a licensed nail stylist.

A just-released report by Jon Sanders, Director of Regulatory Studies at the John Locke Foundation in Raleigh, makes it clear that current occupational licensing requirements should deeply concern state lawmakers interested in improving the state’s employment situation and overall economy. The report shows our fair state licenses more occupations than most other states. According to the report, North Carolina ranks tied with Massachusetts at No. 15 for the most licensed job categories at 154. In the surrounding states, only Tennessee requires more licenses. Virginia requires only half as many, and South Carolina has about a third as many.

“This state licenses 48 of 102 lower-income occupations highlighted in a recent study,” Sanders wrote in his report. “Such occupations are ideal entry points into the job market, and their importance to a state’s economy is not insignificant.”

State lawmakers should not overlook occupational license requirements as they try to find ways to improve the economy.

Meanwhile, for some husbands, the price of that anniversary gift may soon be going up if indeed they have to fork out the extra bucks for that license to operate the new lawn mower bought for their wives. They could, of course, opt to call in a licensed concrete dealer and a licensed painter to convert the lawn into a green, grassless yard. That may seem to be a very expensive alternative, but compared to divorce court, it might be a bargain.