The Role of Regulation


Matt Yglesias has been fighting a good fight against occupational licensing regimes that mostly serve to restrict entry.  He got quite a bit of pushback from commenters pointing out that barbers and hairdressers sometimes work with chemicals and straight razors--which still doesn't explain why all the haircutters who use neither of those things have to go through a barrage of useless tests.  (My hairdresser--not a colorist--in New York, took a test that consisted, among other things, of doing finger waves and poodle perms, looks that went out in the 1930s and the 1980s, respectively.  This didn't speak to either the safety or the quality of the work he actually did.)

Well, I dare the defenders to tell me why casket sales need to be tightly regulated.  You don't even necessarily legally need a casket to get buried in, according to the folks I talked to at the Institute for Justice, which is helping a group of Louisiana monks defend their casket-making business from the predations of industry insiders.  The construction of a box is not one of those complicated things that only licensed professionals can master.  And even if it were, it's not like the occupant is going to be hurt by a badly-constructed casket.

The regulatory board, naturally, "has nine members, eight of whom are funeral industry professionals".  And the explanations of why the monks should not be able to sell caskets are embarassingly bad; the best the Journal could come up with, apparently, is this:

Boyd Mothe Jr., a member of the fifth generation of his family to run Mothe Funeral Homes outside New Orleans, says Louisiana's law should remain on the books because licensed directors have the training to sell caskets--transactions he calls "complicated." For instance, he says, "a quarter of America is oversized. I don't even know if the monks know how to make an oversized casket."

Because, you know, changing the dimensions on a box is really complicated.  Presumably it took the funeral directors years and years to learn the advanced technical skills--multiplication--involved.

The real story, of course, is that caskets are a huge margin business for funeral homes.  You can see why--it's easier to mark up a fancy box than to put an enormous price tag on preparing the body, which could cause an emotional freak-out on the part of the family.  It's hard to maintain those kinds of margins in the era of the internet, especially since caskets are the very definition of a commodity business--there's just not much differentiation in styling or quality in a wooden box.

So funeral directors are doing their best to protect their business.  I don't really blame them.  But that doesn't mean that the rest of us should cooperate by enabling ridiculous licensing schemes.

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Megan McArdle is a columnist at Bloomberg View and a former senior editor at The Atlantic. Her new book is The Up Side of Down.

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