Occupational Licensing and the monks’ caskets


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government is ever to get out of the welfare business, few things are more important than removing the government regulations that prevent people–especially the poor and the weak—from supporting themselves. Prohibitions against home businesses and street vending are not helpful to anyone except existing businesses.

Another big barrier to individual success is occupational licensing which limits employment opportunities and raises prices. Like every governmental power, licensing grows with each passing year. In the 19th century, few barriers existed to prevent a person from pursuing an occupation. By the early 1950s, about 4.5 percent of occupations required a government-issued license. In 2000, the number of licensed occupations ran from a low of 47 in Kansas, all the way to 178 occupations in California. By 2009, the percentage of American jobs that required the government’s blessing was about 29 percent.

Those who favor licensing claim to be protecting the health, safety and welfare of the people, but what they do is create monopolies which eliminate competition and raise prices. Numerous studies reveal that mandatory licensing (as opposed to voluntary certification) does not raise quality, but does keep consumer products and services more expensive. Licensing legislation is sought—not by the consumers it purports to protect—but by the doctors, lawyers and funeral directors that are regulated by it.

The monks of Saint Joseph Abbey

A real-life example of government protection of a favored business through licensing is the persecution of the brothers of Saint Joseph Abbey in Louisiana. The monks earn their living building and selling wooden burial caskets but were threatened by the state of Louisiana for selling those handmade caskets to the public. The reason the monks got into trouble was because they were not government-licensed funeral directors.

It seems that casket sales are a profit center for which the directors had secured a monopoly from the state government. The monks had twice petitioned the legislature to reform the law, but each time the funeral-director lobby mobilized to protect its lucrative monopoly.

The monks finally sued in federal court to strike down the Louisiana law. After a trial, the district court ruled:

There is no rational basis for the State of Louisiana to require persons who seek to enter into the retailing of caskets to undergo the training and expense necessary to comply with these rules. Simply put there is nothing in the licensing procedures that bestows any benefit to the public in the context of the retail sale of caskets. The license has no bearing on the manufacturing and sale of coffins. It appears that the sole reason for these laws is the economic protection of the funeral industry.

–Saint Joseph Abbey, et al. v. Castille, et al.

The funeral directors and their state board have appealed the ruling. A decision is expected soon. Meanwhile, the monks continue to support themselves as they turn out their beautiful cypress caskets.

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