Last week, the Trentelmans, a family in Ogden, Utah, assembled a fort in their yard made of cardboard boxes. It had everything a child could possibly want — tunnels, a trap door, towers and even a slide. The fort was intended to be a temporary construction, providing a few days of creative outside entertainment for their young children and neighbors.
However, the very next day, the Ogden Code Enforcement Office issued the family a warning, threatening them with $125 in fines if they did not take the fort down within two weeks.
The efficiency of a government bureaucracy when there is a potential fine is amazing.
The case of the Trentelmans’ fort is not an isolated incident. This small episode is only the latest in a chain of assaults from an ever-expanding government constantly looking for opportunities to extract fines and fees.
While most focus their attention on what Congress and the president do, the rules and regulations that really have an impact on people’s lives are made at the local level. Local governments have expanded their reach over the past several decades, and fines are one of the ways that they continue encroaching into every aspect of citizen’s lives.
Perhaps the biggest example of state governments’ assault on individual freedom over the past six decades is the push for stricter licensing laws. Less than 5 percent of workers were required to have a license in the 1950s. According to economist Morris Kleiner in a January 2015 paper for the Brookings Institution, that number had climbed to 29 percent by 2008. For some states, the portion is even higher. In Iowa, a full third of the workforce has a license.
Kleiner estimates the costs to our nation’s economic productivity from these laws at $203 billion, with no perceptible benefits to health or safety. For those trying to find work in fields with excessive licensing requirements though, the costs are even more personal and devastating.
Data from the Institute for Justice, a civil liberties law firm that closely monitors occupational licensure laws, details these enormous and burdensome costs in fields ranging from cutting hair to supervising casino games. Every state requires a license to become a cosmetologist or a barber and both occupations require a national average of over a year in addition to two exams.
Becoming a game supervisor in a Pennsylvania casino does not require any additional education or testing, but the state still demands $2,500 in fees. In Nevada, becoming a security alarm installer or a fire sprinkler tester costs over $1,000. And these examples are only the tip of the iceberg.
The unfortunate end result of these unnecessary requirements is that great careers that do not require a college education are inaccessible to lower-income individuals, diminishing opportunities for them to have a fair shot at attaining the American dream. With prohibitively high barriers to entry in hundreds of occupations, many potential entrepreneurs can’t even find a ladder to climb to break into the market.
The Trentelman family’s box fort may seem trivial. The thousands of people having their ambitions squashed by government red tape is not — but the underlying problem is the same. Our state governments have morphed into mini-leviathans while we as citizens have only let out a low murmuring of barely audible dissent.
Despite constant power grabs, local governments have managed to fly under the radar arguably because their onerous laws do not necessarily start out as bad ideas. Cities do have an interest in preventing citizens from piling trash in their yards. Most people would agree that licensing doctors prevents life-threatening medical errors. The problem arises when those in power abuse it and enforce laws unfairly, blurring the line between what is in the public interest and what is in a lobbyist’s special interest.
Although we do not want to live in the America displayed in “The Jungle”, we also must be wary of ceding too much power and slipping into a variation of an Orwellian dystopia. Our government’s duty is to maintain law and order and protect its citizens, but this does not require it to micromanage every aspect of the citizens’ lives.
It should not be too much to ask for a government that allows the occasional box fort and does not dictate what makes a hair stylist acceptable.
Mallory Carr is a junior in the College. The Right Corner appears every other Friday.