RALEIGH – Talk about a raw deal. Trudy Brown, head of the North Carolina Board of Electrolysis Examiners, was the subject of a hearing Friday at the N.C. Board of Ethics. It decided that her transgression – using her public office for personal gain – merited the most severe punishment the board could mete out, a recommendation to remove her from office.
Why would removal be a raw deal? Because Brown, who owns hair-removal clinics in Guilford County, couldn’t possibly have known about any rule preventing state licensing boards from serving the economic interests of its members and officers. You see, with few exceptions, these licensing boards exist precisely to serve the economic interests of members and officers. They exist to exclude competitors and entice a steady stream of willing customers. They are creatures of professional self-interest, not the public interest.
I’m kidding a bit about Brown, of course. As the News & Observer reported last week, she was caught in an embarrassingly brazen pitch for funds from electrologists to be used essentially to purchase a favorable outcome in the General Assembly. Coming out in the midst of the spectacular elections-board hearings about broader campaign-finance allegations, the electrolysis-board story got major play and was certain to lead to repercussions.
But I am serious about questioning the logic of enforcing a standard that, in the context of occupational licensure, makes no sense. The problematic and sometimes distasteful history of such boards should be well-known by now, as should the underlying political economy. Serving as a textbook case of public choice economics, these licensing boards are typically created after political pressure from the supposedly regulated professionals or associations. No one else takes much of an interest in their activities.
North Carolina has boards “regulating” auctioneers, cosmetologists, and barbers, just to name a few. No one seriously believes that public safety or the Republic is significantly endangered by unlicensed auctioneers and rogue coiffeurs. Licensing standards truly exist to limit the number of practitioners entering the market, thus boosting prices and profits for incumbent practitioners, while also guaranteeing that would-be practitioners have to purchase training and credentials from recognized institutions, which are often the very same incumbent practitioners. They make money both ways.
In the electrolysis case, the legislation in question would have extended state regulation to the use of lasers at hair-removal clinics, a practice that apparently is not currently covered by licensure rules. Brown claimed the measure would “protect the consumer.” Other providers, however, argued that it would boost the business of clinics using the lasers, such as Brown’s, at the expense of those that did not.
I’m not in the business, so I’ll plead ignorance as to whether the latter is true. It would be entirely consistent with the history of these kinds of licensing agencies, however. And the Ethics Board apparently concluded that the regulation would have benefited Brown, which is telling.
The irony of the board’s action is delicious. Its recommendation for removal is directed to the state politician who appointed Brown: House Speaker-for-now Jim Black.
Hood is president of the John Locke Foundation.