The Multiple Justifications of Occupational Licensing

58 Pages Posted: 12 Mar 2018 Last revised: 15 Jan 2019

See all articles by Nick Robinson

Nick Robinson

International Center for Not-for-Profit Law; Harvard Law School, Center on the Legal Profession

Date Written: March 4, 2018


Nearly a quarter of all workers in the United States are currently in a job that requires an occupational license. As the prevalence of occupational licensing has grown, so have claims that its overuse is causing increased consumer costs and impairing labor mobility and economic freedom. To address these concerns, many policymakers and academics argue that licensing restrictions should be more closely tailored to the goal of protecting the public from harm and that, to guard against capture, practitioners should not regulate their own licensing. Federal courts, in turn, have drawn on this vision of the proper role of occupational licensing to significantly limit when and how licensing can be used through their interpretation of antitrust law and the First and Fourteenth Amendments of the Constitution.

This Article takes a step back to argue that these critiques of occupational licensing, and the federal jurisprudence based on them, embrace a narrow view of the role of licensing in the economy that is grounded in both an embrace of economic libertarianism and an antagonism towards professional self-regulation. While this view generally recognizes licensing as justified to protect the public from harm in limited situations, it disregards a range of other values that occupational licensing has historically been viewed to promote. This Article draws on social science literature to categorize these other justifications as (1) fostering communities of knowledge and competence; (2) developing relationships of trust; and (3) buffering producers from the market.

The Article uses specific examples from the judiciary’s occupational licensing jurisprudence to show how acknowledging this broader set of justifications should constrain the courts from imposing a narrow view of licensing’s role in the economy. It ends by suggesting that if the federal government is to shape occupational licensing policy, Congress and the Executive are better placed than the judiciary to take the lead.

Keywords: Occupational Licensing, First Amendment, Anti-Trust Law, Equal Protection

Suggested Citation

Robinson, Nick, The Multiple Justifications of Occupational Licensing (March 4, 2018). Washington Law Review (2018), Available at SSRN:

Nick Robinson (Contact Author)

International Center for Not-for-Profit Law ( email )

1126 16th Street NW
Washington, DC 20036
United States

Harvard Law School, Center on the Legal Profession ( email )

1563 Massachusetts Ave
Cambridge, MA 02138
United States

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