Designing Non-Competition

by Kathryn Jean Lopez

The Institute for Justice is bringing attention to a free-market fight they are involved in in Florida this week involving interior-design regulation. Clark Neily, one of IJ’s attorneys, offers a crash course in interior-design lobbying:

Q: Why does the Institute for Justice care at all about the American Society for Interior Designers? 

A: ASID has been working to legislate potential competitors out of business for more than 30 years. That lobbying effort is a textbook example of “public choice theory” in action: a small but highly vocal (and well-funded) group of industry insiders manipulating the political process to advance their own anti-competitive agenda at the expense of economic liberty and sound public policy.

Q: So this is a big free-market fight in your mind?

A: Absolutely. Interior design is a harmless occupation that the government has no business licensing. Doing away with this laughable licensing requirement shouldn’t even be a close call for legislators, but if the interior-design cartel can persuade lawmakers that being allowed to practice their trade requires a four-year college degree, a two-year apprenticeship and passing a $1,000, two-day licensing exam — is there any occupation legislators won’t regulate?

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Q: Why is this a big deal in Florida right now?

A: Citizens across Florida and across the nation are rightfully questioning what government at every level is doing. What Florida has done in regulating this industry shows you the inevitable abuse that happens when public power is used for the private gain of industry insiders. Because of the pressure applied by ASID on behalf of its members, Florida passed and vigorously enforced a law that includes the State Board of Architecture and Interior Design hiring a private law firm to prosecute alleged violations, resulting in more than 600 disciplinary actions since the firm was retained in 2002. If lawmakers, and especially Republican lawmakers, want to show the public that they are serious about reforming government and growing our economy, doing away with Florida’s interior-design restrictions is a great place to start.

Q: How many lobbyists can interior designers have?

A: This sounds like one of those “How many _______ does it take to change a light bulb?” jokes. How many lobbyists does it take to save a blatantly anti-competitive, job-killing occupational licensing law that drives up prices, limits choices, and disproportionately excludes minorities and older, mid-career switchers from the interior-design field for no good reason? I guess we don’t know the answer since the legislative fight isn’t over yet, but so far ASID and its allies have hired at least six different lobbying firms and counting, according to our latest reports.

(See “Designing Cartels”  for data on higher prices, less consumer choice, and disproportionate impact on minorities and older career-switchers.)

Q: If you saw my office you’d know I’m no expert in the field, but does interior design need to be regulated? 

A: Interior design certainly does not need to be regulated, as evidenced in part by the fact that 47 states do not regulate the practice of interior design and have not had any documented problems as a result. In fact, the Florida attorney general’s office even stipulated in IJ’s federal court challenge that it has no evidence that the unlicensed practice of interior design presents any bona fide public-welfare concerns and no evidence that the licensing of interior designers has benefited the public in any demonstrable way. Those stipulations are confirmed by a dozen state studies that have uniformly reached the same conclusion.

Q: Will what the Senate president does here affect his Senate race? 

A: As a 501(c)(3) organization, IJ stays out of electoral politics and neither supports nor opposes specific candidates. That said, we certainly expect that legislators should be able to see through this kind of special-interest smokescreen and not allow themselves to be tricked or bullied into supporting a transparently self-interested lobbying campaign by industry insiders seeking to maintain their illegitimate government-conferred monopoly over the interior-design field.

Q: What do you want Floridians to know about this? 

A: Job-killing occupational regulations like Florida’s interior-design licensing law are destroying the engine of prosperity upon which America’s future depends. In the 1950s, only 5 percent of the workforce was subject to occupational licensing; today, that figure is 30 percent and climbing. What this country needs is more entrepreneurs and fewer bureaucrats. Eliminating Florida’s blatantly anti-competitive interior-design law would be a wonderful opportunity for a small group of policymakers to show they get that in a big way.

Q: What’s the timeline? 

A: Florida’s legislative session ends tomorrow, so we will have a decision one way or the other by then.

Q: How did this ever come to your attention? 

A: We were contacted by a group of pro-freedom interior designers in Alabama, which passed an interior-design licensing law very similar to Florida’s in 2001. We joined an ongoing state court challenge to that law which culminated in a 2007 decision from the Alabama supreme court in October 2007. We quickly realized that ASID’s attempt to monopolize the interior-design business was one of the most intense and sustained assaults on economic liberty we had ever encountered, and we have been battling the interior-design cartel all across the country ever since.