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Massage licensure: Another error of the 2012 Legislature

Massage licensure: Another error of the 2012 Legislature

Wayne Hoffman
April 23, 2012

Yet another disappointing legacy of the 2012 legislative session is the licensure of massage therapists in Idaho. Gov. Butch Otter signed the bill without comment, but his spokesman, Jon Hanian, told IdahoReporter.com that because the bill “was brought by the individuals in that profession as a means of self-policing and self-governing their own profession, the governor did not see any reason to oppose the legislation.”

The governor’s spokesman gives a reason that is a contradiction. “Self-policing and self-governing” of a profession generally don’t involve the government. True self-policing and self-governing occur when the government does not create a regulatory board that will use the force of law to create barriers to enter the marketplace and make the unlicensed participation in massage therapy illegal.

In true self-management of a profession, one or more massage therapy associations would monitor, endorse and reprimand massage therapists. Some massage therapists will even choose to not belong to any association. In the end, consumers benefit from more choices, lower prices and more innovation.

There are, in fact, tons of reasons to oppose new occupational licensure. Licensure creates a barrier to the marketplace.

Licensure boards are comprised of people in a profession — people who will have the means and motive to keep new people out of their profession. The board can turn down applicants, but it can also make entry into the profession challenging, so much so that it discourages people from trying.

This type of marketplace protectionism is useful if you’re already part of the profession. Not so good if you want to join it.

This barrier to entry drives up the cost of massage therapy by making fewer therapists available in the marketplace and by adding new costs to the profession in the form of licensing fees and costlier education requirements.

Advocates for licensure claim that it will protect the public, particularly from prostitutes who use massage parlors as a front for their businesses. It’s too easy for me to point out that prostitution has been around longer than the state Legislature, and indeed, longer than even the notion of occupational licenses.

Forcing law-abiding massage therapists to get licenses won’t stop prostitution. In states where massage therapists are required to be licensed, prostitution still exists, and some prostitutes still use massage as a front for doing business.

It’s also too easy for me to point out that even licensed professions have bad apples — doctors, morticians, psychologists, airline pilots — that mere government credentialing will never eradicate. The great economist Milton Friedman, in the 1970s, even pointed out that if government wants to help with health care quality and costs, one sensible way would be to end the licensure of doctors. Since then, the government has piled on with new regulations, new mandates and new restrictions, all in an attempt to solve problems, and all of which have contributed to skyrocketing health care costs while solving nothing.

Idaho’s lawmakers bought into the notion that a profession with a close public interaction should be licensed. But that is another disturbing part of this tale. By such a measure, plenty of professions in Idaho — some regulated by other states and some not — deserve licensing. Auto mechanics are required by some state laws to be licensed, but not in Idaho. At least not yet.

As with massage therapists, grocery store clerks, waiters, cable TV repair technicians, building janitors, hoteliers and newspaper reporters and editors are all unlicensed and they all have arguably high interaction with the public that can impact public health, safety and reputations. There are no doubt other professions I haven’t thought of.

In any profession, there are good actors and bad, people with great motivations and those with ulterior motives, straight shooters and riff raff. This is true in both the free market and the regulated market. Government officials extol the virtues of both but expand only the regulated market at the expense of freedom.

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