The License

The state does not license cats. Why is that? They license dogs, why not cats? Could it be that cats refuse to be licensed? Are they too independent, stubborn, stuck-up, wily, and disobedient to be licensed?

According to my dictionary, the main meanings of the word, license, are: a. Official or legal permission to do or own a specified thing. b. Proof of permission granted, usually in the form of a document, card, plate, or tag. I never knew a cat who ever asked anybody for permission to do anything, so maybe that's the answer.

But let's look at other categories of licensing. We have to license cars and trucks, but we do not have to license backhoes or lawn mowers. Does that make sense? Evidently the demand to license a thing is not inherent to the thing. I mean, these things all have engines and wheels and they move around, but we only license some of them. Why license cars? The individual car is already identified by the manufacturers' number, why do we need another one? The fee, of course, goes to support a state bureaucracy consisting of bored and indifferent individuals who are only working there for the wages and benefits and who couldn't care less about their career, if you can call it that. So why bother?

Yes, I know, the real reason we must license cars is so that the state can keep track of us. It's the same reason we must file a personal income tax return. Americans, unlike Europeans, have never been required to register with the police whenever they move from one place to another and we probably would not do it. This works.

What does a business license accomplish? Well, I guess it proves that you're seriously in business, although in most cities you can't be in business without one. So it's outright extortion, like property taxes, going to fund city government services that you didn't want anyway. Police? Well, maybe you do want police protection of your property, but police won't go near a riot and they're always too busy elsewhere, so you'll have to pay extra to hire your own.

How about a marriage license? That's something everybody really needs. How many times has a business asked you to show them your marriage license? What is this? Of course, in legal disputes it serves as a record of marriage, an implied contract, but what's to keep couples from making explicit contracts that could be used in private arbitration of disputes? It wouldn't be romantic, I suppose, but then waiting in line at the county clerk's desk isn't terribly romantic either. Neither is divorce court.

But we all know that doctors and dentists and nurses and such need to be licensed. Don't we? Their license is the state's guarantee that they are fully educated and competent at their business and that they won't cheat you or cause you bodily harm. Right? Okay, take away that guarantee, the state doesn't guarantee anything. But the license proves they're educated and competent, doesn't it? College degrees also prove they're educated and the validation of supervisors also proves they're competent. In fact, these are the very things that states use to issue the license. So what does the license prove? Why is it necessary? Why do we believe in it?

When I started working in hospitals back in the sixties, my particular niche in that world was not licensed. We had our own private organization that issued a certificate after a person voluntarily submitted to testing and that certificate was accepted in hospitals all over the country. Specific institutional education was not required to qualify for that test, but a person had to have two years of supervised experience and the endorsement of two of those supervisors to apply for it. That could get real sticky.

People who knew the business had to be convinced that you knew the business before they would commit themselves to endorsing you and it was up to you to convince them. There were no textbooks on this subject in those days, but there were textbooks on anatomy, microbiology, physics, pharmacology, physiology, and chemistry; subjects that you were expected to know. There were also complex machines to learn inside-out, because you had to be able to fix them yourself if they broke down.

This was during the forging of a new profession, brought about by emerging technology. The doctors and the technicians were determined to find better ways to keep people alive after surgery or trauma, so the era of life-support machines was born. The technicians took their responsibility seriously and they did not make entry into their world easy. People who just wanted a job could look elsewhere.

Of course, there are parasites in any business, no matter how much you try to get rid of them. When you have a national organization that supposedly represents thousands of people in a business, you necessarily have people running it. At first those people still worked in hospitals and ran the organization on the side, but the membership kept growing and the dues piled up and one day there was just too much work to be done at the office. The bureaucrats arrived.

Other things happened. Medicare refused to recognize the profession and all the Blues followed suit, which created a big reimbursement problem for hospitals. Hospital administration gradually became a profession too and adopted the model of organization from the government and the old rust-belt industries, the top-down pyramid, which required a department head who had to attend meetings instead of treating patients. Ambitious young doctors saw opportunity knocking and began to write research papers and textbooks on the new technology. Medical centers started formal in-house education programs. Voices were raised here and there demanding that we become genuine, validated, professionals, just like the doctors and the nurses, by asking the state to license us too.

I objected to that, naturally, and the national organization duly published my objection in their journal. I predicted that licensure would destroy the quality and the integrity of the practitioners and thus would destroy the credibility of the profession itself. This was not well received, particularly by those individuals who resented the threat of ostracism for inadequate work and the onerous difficulty of acquiring that piece of paper the way we had been doing it. They wanted schools. They wanted teachers who would be reasonable and understanding. They could get what they wanted if the state required graduation from a school to qualify for a license. From big empires do little empires grow.

I have heard it said that professional licensure came into existence at the insistence of professionals themselves who wished to restrict access to their field, the idea being to raise the price by limiting the supply for a given demand. I wonder, though, how much the cry for licensure was driven by simpler motives like envy, jealousy, and fear, like the motives behind the anti-trust lawsuit against Microsoft? I mean, if a person could demonstrate exceptional expertise in a field and contribute to innovation in that field, would it really matter to similar professionals if that person is licensed? I don't think so.

I would like to be able to say to my young and hopeful colleagues, once more, "I don't care where you learned it, just tell me how you would use the Henderson-Hasselbach equation in this situation," instead of depending on the license they acquired by graduating from a program and taking a multiple-choice test, thus satisfying the requirements of the state licensing board.

The structure of the licensure process in our society sits on a foundation that presumes there is some state authority that knows more than anybody else, that knows best who is qualified and who is not qualified to do something, without any guarantees. The fact that this authority is a person who merely collects and files documents demanded by a checklist prepared by a committee is totally ignored. None of these people are accountable in a malpractice lawsuit, for example, because they issued a license to somebody who was totally incompetent to do the licensed job, but who was fully competent to supply the required documents. Documents don't do surgery. I think we'd all be better off if we left the certifying of medical professionals to insurance underwriters who have a financial stake in being right. Insurance could guarantee to the consumer that the practitioner is educated and competent, the state cannot.

So let's consider licensing software engineers. Immediately one realizes that if Mr. Bill Gates had been forced to get a license first, the world would most likely not have a Microsoft Corporation today. We read about thousands of young people who renounce the tedium of higher education for the excitement of writing software, which they learned to do on their own, and creating their own Internet companies. Some succeed, some fail. I can just see some bureaucrat focusing myopically on the failures and saying, we ought to make it easier for them, their self-esteem depends on it, and I know how to give them all equal opportunity: license them! Make them all the same!

I do hope that I haven't given somebody an agenda in that paragraph, but here's another idea, the government could license writers too. Didn't the Soviet Union do something like that?. This wouldn't be censorship, mind you, that would be unconstitutional, but no writer could be published who was not licensed, a wholly different matter. I wonder what committee would set the standards? Ah, the New York Times! I wonder about the rules a writer would have to obey? Education requirements, tests, continuing education, fees to be paid? A whole new bureaucracy devoted to ignoring complaints? And all paid for by the victims, just like the DMV and the state licensing boards.

Elegant idea, and many a politician would pant to dream of it, but it wouldn't work, for the same reason that licensing cats doesn't work. Not all people are as independent, stubborn, stuck up, wily, and disobedient as cats, but writers come pretty close, especially libertarian writers.

In the end, if we could just let go of our precious and profound co-dependent faith in the omniscience and omnipotence of the state, once reserved in our civilization for God alone, we might see that licensing professions is the codification of mediocrity. The most able and the least able are granted equality by the state, and the devil take the hindmost, who are us, the consumers. We pay for it. The license? Abolish it.

April 21, 2001

Robert Klassen is a medical technician and writer. Here’s his web site.