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EDITORIAL: Burying crony capitalism

The courts strike a blow for economic freedom

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An established business knows that the most direct way to dominate the market is to enlist government assistance. Trade groups frequently seek the imposition of licensing requirements — in the name of public safety, of course.

Requiring someone who wants to be a barber, tour guide or interior decorator to obtain certification before practicing the trade creates a significant barrier to a job. Every day and every dollar spent by a newcomer complying with bureaucratic demands means he has less time to compete with an established business. The government is happy to impose license restrictions because it collects a nice stream of revenue from license applicants and holders.

The 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals last month struck a blow for common sense, decreeing that this process goes too far. A three-judge panel struck down a Louisiana law requiring that coffins be sold only by a state-licensed funeral director at a licensed funeral home.

The Institute for Justice argued the case for the Benedictine monks of St. Joseph Abbey, who wanted to sell simple wooden coffins — "casket" is the prettified word preferred in the funerary trade — the monks have been making for their own monks for years. To comply with state law, the monks would have to spend years formally learning the trade and pass a test from the International Conference of Funeral Examining Boards. The monastery itself would have to be redesigned to contain a parlor seating 30 people, a display room for six coffins, an arrangement room and an embalming room at the cost of thousands of dollars.

It's not like a wooden box poses a safety hazard to someone who's already dead. The dust and ashes to which the dead are returning surely won't mind. This was such an obvious case of economic protectionism that the monks turned to the courts for relief. The state of Louisiana sought to dismiss the case, arguing that it is within the purview of the state to pick economic winners and losers. The court would have none of it. "As we see it," the judges declared, "neither precedent nor broader principles suggest that mere economic protection of a particular industry is a legitimate governmental purpose."

There was a time in America when government wouldn't think to impose such favoritism, but the days when constitutional guarantees of liberty and equal protection were cherished by everyone, including judges, were the days of wine and roses for the law. Every state in the union has special-interest provisions just as offensive as those of Louisiana. In Nevada, teaching milady how to powder her nose without a license is a crime carrying up to $2,000 in fines. In the nation's capital, conducting a tour of Lincoln's memorial without a license can earn an offender 90 days in the pokey. Four states license the use of the term "interior designer" without regulating the actual designing of an interior.

This limits competition and drives up prices. Individuals should be able to earn a living in simple trades without having to beg for government forbearance. Perhaps the case of the St. Joseph Abbey monks will make its way to the Supreme Court. The justices should restore the economic liberty the Founders intended and send crony capitalism to the graveyard in a cheap coffin.

The Washington Times

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