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Taking the Battle Against Occupational Licensing to the Next Level

In 1954, U.S. Supreme Court Justice William O. Douglas wrote in a dissenting opinion that the right to work was “the most precious liberty that man possesses.” Less than a year later, however, he authored the Court’s opinion in Williamson v. Lee Optical of Oklahoma, Inc., unanimously upholding what amounted to a state ban on opticians and formally adopting the “rubber-stamp” rational basis test for economic liberty claims against which IJ has been fighting since we opened our doors in 1991.

Of course, Douglas had it right the first time: Occupational freedom is a fundamental and indeed quintessentially American right, notwithstanding more than half a century of judicial indifference. And guess what? People are starting to realize it. Word is getting out. Heck, the White House even published a report last summer titled Occupational Licensing: A Framework for Policymakers that is chock-full of observations, conclusions and prescriptions that could have been lifted from the pages of IJ’s own publications. (Yes, we provided some input.)

IJ has racked up more economic liberty wins than any public interest firm in the nation. We have filed 79 economic liberty cases since 1991, winning more than three out of four through court decisions, settlements or legislative repeal. And what we have learned from those experiences is to choose wonderful clients, tell their stories both in court and in the court of public opinion, and attack occupational overregulation on multiple fronts—because what happens in courts influences what happens in legislatures and vice versa.

In keeping with that strategy, IJ has launched an ambitious and far-reaching campaign to roll back occupational licensing schemes in targeted states. The campaign kicked off this spring with a National Economic Liberty Forum, during which more than 50 lawyers, activists, journalists, bloggers and scholars assembled in Dallas to discuss the importance of occupational freedom and chart a path toward greater economic liberty in America.

It was an incredibly inspiring conference, featuring presentations by IJ’s Lisa Knepper, Dick Carpenter and Lee McGrath, along with distinguished economist Morris Kleiner, who literally wrote the book on occupational overregulation, and Federal Trade Commissioner Maureen Ohlhausen, who delivered a rousing lunchtime keynote speech titled “Occupational Licensing from Hammurabi to Hair Braiding.” Former IJ client Melony Armstrong capped off the event with a moving dinner speech in which she described her journey from would-be braider in her home state of Mississippi to entrepreneur extraordinaire and economic liberty crusader.

The next step in the campaign is to hold state-level follow-up conferences in four states, including Arizona and Michigan. Those conferences will devise concrete strategies for legislative reform. Simply put, we are putting a bullseye on oppressive occupational regulation and enlisting the aid of like-minded legislators to go after it at the source: inside the walls of our state capitols. By equipping activists and policymakers to advocate for change, IJ will open the doors to opportunity and clear the way for people to pursue their version of the American Dream—without having to ask the government’s permission.

Clark Neily is an IJ senior attorney.

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