In the annals of petty tyranny, the dental cartel of North Carolina merits at least a footnote, having taken its case all the way to the Supreme Court to argue that it should be empowered to use the levers of state government to exclude its competitors from the marketplace.
The black market in tooth brightening just got a little whiter.
The Court’s conservatives took a liberal view of the North Carolina dental cartel, with Justices Alito, Scalia, and Thomas arguing in dissent that the dental board was simply administering the state’s licensing requirements under the law. The legal question is whether state agencies are immune from the antitrust laws under which the North Carolina arrangement was challenged, and the answer is, as it long has been, “Yes, generally, but . . . ”
A legal opinion shared by Justices Alito, Scalia, and Thomas deserves to be given the benefit of the doubt, and the ancient observation that “unconstitutional” and “stupid” are not synonyms applies. Perhaps it would have been better if the reform had come from North Carolina’s legislature rather than from the Supreme Court, as a strictly legal matter. But as a matter of economics and public policy, North Carolina’s arrangement is indefensible, as are the scores of other cartel arrangements in the several states that are structurally identical to it.
These requirements are part of a vast middleman economy in which opportunists in both the public and the private sectors profit by standing between people and their goals. This very often comes at the expense of people at the lower end of the job market, those with the least in the way of skills and formal education. There are a great many intelligent, energetic, entrepreneurial people without the inclination to pursue four-year college degrees or other postsecondary education, but who might thrive, both economically and personally, as operators of moving companies or hair salons. For that matter, there are highly educated and academically oriented people who thrive in those industries, too: You may know Karol Markowicz’s work from the New York Post, but she also operates Fix Beauty Bar in New York City, where the byzantine laws and regulations governing residents from head to toe — literally; no one may work as hair colorist or provide a pedicure without a state license — make it much more difficult for people without substantial resources and connections to work in many occupations, much less to start a business.
That’s a comfortable situation if you already own a successful moving company or nail salon. If you are a young person looking to make your way in a hostile job market, or a mother looking for earning opportunities after some time out of the work force, or disinclined to invest four years and $100,000 in a college program related only remotely to your real interests and life plans, you might find yourself wondering why those who are a bit higher than you on the economic ladder have the legal right to cut off the bottom rungs just as you are reaching for them.
And if you were a member of a political party looking to improve its standing among Americans suffering from economic anxiety, you might see this as an occasion upon which doctrinaire economic libertarianism and the self-interest of what we sometimes call the working class converge in potentially fruitful ways.
— Kevin D. Williamson is roving correspondent at National Review.