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EDITORIAL: The piano police

Federal Trade Commission bullies a nonprofit into endorsing unethical behavior

- - Thursday, December 5, 2013

Bureaucrats at the Federal Trade Commission must have a lot of spare time. The agency recently swooped to rescue the American people from the threat posed by a collaborative organization of 22,000 professionals who sit down with youngsters and teach them how to play a piano.

As first reported by The Wall Street Journal, regulators forced the Music Teachers National Association, a century-old nonprofit, to accept a consent decree over the group's code of ethics, which simply encouraged members not to pilfer or recruit students from fellow members. Only in a twisted bureaucratic mind would such a sensible provision be seen as a restraint of trade or a violation of federal law. The Federal Trade Commission is singing off the wrong song sheet.

The association did everything possible to appease the peevish regulators, including expunging the offending language from its code of ethics. The code has never even been enforced, because the obligation for members to follow the code is moral, not legal. This wasn't enough. "Although MTNA demonstrated to the FTC that its code of ethics is voluntary," the group explained in a statement, "and that the Association has never enforced the solicitation provision, the FTC offered MTNA the unappetizing choice of entering into a settlement or spending hundreds of thousands of membership dues dollars fighting the federal government." The administration has demanded the group dig up 20 years' worth of paperwork regarding its policies, hire "compliance officers" and set up pointless training sessions for employees.

Many businessmen faced with similar FTC bullying tactics may decide it's just not worth the headache to run an enterprise while constantly taking fire from the bureaucracy. In some industries, it's the government that comes by and restrains trade by requiring permits and licensing. Doctors, lawyers and other professions keep salaries high by keeping a tight lid on the number of competitors. Some would argue the life-and-death implications of these jobs require regulation, but the same can't be said in states that license hairdressers and interior decorators. The concern also doesn't apply to music teachers, who are free to hang out a shingle and share their talents with anyone looking to learn how to play the cello or improve their singing ability.

The FTC struck the wrong chord when it went after piano teachers. If the agency really cares about restoring competition to the marketplace, it ought to launch an investigation into its own practices.