An Economic Liberty Lawsuit with Teeth

October 1, 2006

October 2006

IJ Minnesota Chapter client Chris Johnson (right), shown with his father Jim Johnson, is subject to fines and even jail time for practicing his craft.

By Lee McGrath

Does a Minnesotan who files horse teeth for a living have much in common with a New York jitney van driver, a Tennessee casket seller or a California hairbraider?

You betcha!

All their pursuits of an honest living have, at one time or another, been blocked by government-imposed licensing laws advocated by existing businesses seeking to use government power to fence out new competitors.

Occupational licensing laws—laws the government enforces to limit who can practice an occupation or trade—are the type of regulations that established professions love. They protect entrenched interests from competition, prevent entrepreneurs from filling specialized niches, and inflict higher prices, lower quality and fewer choices on consumers.

Studies show that licensing laws generally fail to protect public health and safety beyond what competition and ordinary legal remedies, such as contract or fraud claims, would achieve. Such laws do nothing more than create government-imposed cartels that protect insiders’ profits.

Just as masons “float” mortar to make it smooth, horse teeth “floaters” manually file down points and level a horse’s teeth. Horses need to have their teeth floated because their modern diet is not sufficiently abrasive to maintain the evenness of their teeth. If the points are not floated, it may become painful for a domestic horse to chew or hold a bit.

“Veterinarians—who charge two to three times more than floaters—could not compete with Chris, so they looked to Minnesota’s Board of Veterinary Medicine to protect the economic booty that they could not earn in the market.”

Chris Johnson of Hutchinson, Minn., is a third-generation horse teeth floater. His great-uncle floats teeth in Oklahoma and his father, Jim, a floater for nearly 20 years who lives in Sacred Heart, Minn., taught Chris the trade. Chris can offer a more cost-effective service than veterinarians who use expensive sedatives and power tools. He calms the horse naturally and floats its teeth manually using a simple file.

Veterinarians—who charge two to three times more than floaters—could not compete with Chris, so they looked to Minnesota’s Board of Veterinary Medicine to protect the economic booty that they could not earn in the market.

Like many occupational licensing boards, Minnesota’s Board of Veterinary Medicine is comprised almost entirely of practitioners—providing ample opportunity for “capturing” governmental power to advance their members’ economic interests.

As a result of the Veterinary Board’s lobbying efforts, Chris is limited to two options under Minnesota’s law: He can either become a licensed veterinarian (at a cost of approximately $100,000 over a four-year course of study during which time he will never actually be taught how to practice his trade) or he can pass an exam given by the International Association of Equine Dentistry (IAED), based in Texas. The second option, however, is a false choice: Before you can float your first horse’s teeth, you must pass the IAED’s test, but to qualify to take the test, you must float 250 horses’ teeth under the supervision of an existing IAED member. Not only are there no IAED members in Minnesota to supervise, it is illegal to float without a license. In other words, the IAED option is a Catch-22 in which you have to break the State’s law to abide by it.

But Johnson is not accepting the new regulations without a fight. He joined with the Institute for Justice Minnesota Chapter to file suit on August 16 challenging these laws.

As in IJ’s past cases on behalf of jitney drivers, casket retailers and hairbraiders, Johnson is fighting for his livelihood. His lawsuit is about restoring the vision of America as the Land of Opportunity for all entrepreneurs who dream of setting their own course free from government coercion and needless constraints. In the end, we hope to show it is these needless regulations—and not Johnson’s equine clientele—that are long in the tooth.

Lee McGrath is the executive director of the Institute for Justice Minnesota Chapter.

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