Should the state license doctors and lawyers? Almost everyone would say "yes," given the harm that could be suffered at the hands of an unqualified and unscrupulous practitioner.
But how about barbers, landscape architects, manicurists and window installers? It's a lot harder to make a case that there's a compelling public interest in regulating those professions.
A debate is now under way in Lansing over the state's role in regulating and licensing certain occupations and professions.
The debate stems from a report last year by a task force appointed by Gov. Rick Snyder that recommended eliminating state licensing for 18 occupations.
Some legislators are targeting other occupations, and some want to go much further, proposing legislation that would prohibit the state from imposing licensing requirements on any occupation without a proven effect on public health and safety.
What's interesting is that the strongest opposition to occupational deregulation usually comes from the affected industries.
Historically, most licensing requirements haven't been thought up by an intrusive and overly protective government, but were adopted at the request of the people in those occupations. While there might be safety considerations involved, professionals in certain industries sought, like medieval guilds, to limit access to their fields.
Licensing may keep out lesser trained people who might harm the reputation of their profession, but in the process it also limits the number of practitioners - keeping rates and prices higher than the free market would otherwise set - and effectively imposes "taxes" on certain workers through required classes, exams and fees that can cost thousands of dollars.
What we have today is a crazy quilt of regulated and unregulated occupations that varies from state to state, as well as requirements that just don't make sense.
For instance, Michigan is one of 22 states that has some form of regulation or registry for interior designers.
Are consumers in the other 28 states being fleeced or plagued by bad feng shui? Is there a good reason Michigan licenses floor sanders when 41 states don't?
Do barbers really require 2,000 hours of training when emergency medical technicians need only 60 hours and you can get an amateur pilot's license with 40 hours?
As the free-market Mackinac Center for Public Policy notes, Michigan mandates licensing for painting but not drywall, installing wood floors and tile but not carpet, putting up gutters but not fences. And the list goes on.
In our view, state government should be involved in occupational regulation only when consumers face a clear threat to health and safety or of irreparable financial harm (that is, much more than the cost of a bad haircut).
Word-of-mouth about substandard work is a far more powerful regulator in most cases than a state board in Lansing.
Professionals who want to establish standards that signal to consumers that members have certain training and skills can set up their own private certification programs, as many already have - there's no need for government involvement.
We don't favor sweeping legislation that affects dozens of fields at once; every occupation must be judged on its own.
But in every case legislators need to ask: Is this regulation really necessary?