Research & Commentary: States Should Protect the Right to Earn a Living

Published June 7, 2017

British common law, which is the foundation of modern American liberties, protects the right of a citizen to earn a living. During the 19th-century Reconstruction era, which followed the Civil War, the right to earn a living became an important issue, in large part because many policymakers wanted to ensure newly freed slaves would have the right to work.

All that changed, however, with President Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal policies, which ushered in an era in which heavy regulation became the norm. These regulations, particularly occupational-licensing laws, unfairly forbid people from entering the workforce.

Fortunately, modern pushback against government interference in occupational licensing has gained traction in states across the country. For instance, on April 5, 2017, Arizona Gov. Doug Ducey (R) signed Senate Bill 1437, giving Arizonans the right to earn a living.

In a statement to the press, Ducey said, “The opportunity to earn a living and pursue the American dream is a right promised to every citizen. But too often, government stands in the way, imposing unnecessary barriers meant only to serve entrenched interests.” The goal of the act “is to identify unnecessary and burdensome licensing requirements that are making it harder for Arizonans to find, keep, and create jobs” and eliminate those unjustified requirements, thereby freeing citizens to exercise their right to work.

Occupational-licensing laws inhibit Americans’ right to pursue the “American Dream” by imposing numerous and often costly requirements that must be met to legally provide a desired service to the public. Byron Schlomach of the Goldwater Institute wrote in a July 2020 Policy Report, “Economic research shows licensing makes services more expensive for consumers and more difficult—often unnecessarily so—for people to enter a new profession. That’s no small matter in these years of persistent high unemployment.”

Occupational-licensing proponents argue the government needs to regulate businesses to protect public health and safety, but many of these regulations are unnecessary or illegitimate and ultimately end up harming entrepreneurs and new businesses.

In January 2016, the Goldwater Institute published model legislation attempting to secure workers’ rights, titled the Right to Earn a Living Act (RELA). RELA “recognizes that the right of individuals to pursue a chosen business or profession, free from arbitrary or excessive government interference, is a fundamental civil right.” The act “provides substantive protection for those rights while at the same time preserving the ability of state regulatory agencies and local governments to protect the public through legitimate and proportionate health and safety regulations.”

RELA does not remove the power of the government to regulate industries to protect public health or improve safety, but it does require regulations be legitimate, necessary, and specifically tailored. This rightly places the burden of justifying the restrictions imposed by the government on government.

The Right to Earn a Living Act restores power to the people. Unnecessary regulations – such as requirements for African hair braiders to go to cosmetology schools, which often do not teach African hair braiding – restrict freedom of enterprise and the right to earn a living. Other states should follow Arizona’s lead and liberate entrepreneurs, business owners, and workers to freely participate in the workforce.

The following documents provide more information on the right to earn a living and occupational licensing.

Illinois Court Upholds Woman’s Right to Earn a Living, Ending Two-Year Struggle
In this article for The Heartland Institute, Jacob Huebert reports about a situation in which regulations inhibited an entrepreneur from starting a new company. An Illinois woman wanted to create her own version of a “vehicle-for-hire” that would do a better job of keeping college students safe than the existing companies in the area. The city of Bloomington, Illinois refused to grant her a license because other companies said there was no need for a new business. She took her case to court and eventually received a license from the city.

Arizona Undertakes Sweeping Reform of Occupational-Licensing Laws
In this article for The Daily Signal, Christian Britschgi examines the occupational-licensing reforms created in Arizona with the passage of the Right to Earn a Living Act.

License to Work: A National Study of Burdens from Occupational Licensing
This 2012 report from the Institute for Justice examines licensing laws in the United States and the burdens the arbitrary licensing laws place on workers. “In documenting the license requirements for 102 occupations nationwide, this report finds that these laws can pose substantial barriers for those seeking work.”

The Common Law Right to Earn a Living
In this article for The Independent Review, Timothy Sandefur of the Goldwater Institute explains the connection between British common law and the American right to freedom of enterprise. Sandefur argues that “the Constitution was formed in part to protect the individual’s right to pursue a business without wrongful interference. That right deserves protection by our courts today, just as it received protection by our courts for many centuries before the New Deal.”

Senate Bill 1437, the Right to Earn a Living Act
In this article for the Goldwater Institute, Jon Riches reviews the problems created by arbitrary occupational-licensing regulations and Arizona’s Senate Bill 1437, which eliminated many of those burdensome regulations. As Riches notes, this bill does not inhibit governments from “protect[ing] the public against unqualified or dishonest businesses,” but it does ensure governments will only create necessary restrictions.

Six Reforms to Occupational-Licensing Laws to Increase Jobs and Lower Costs
In this Policy Report for the Goldwater Institute, Byron Schlomach explains the difficulties for entrepreneurs created by strict occupational-licensing laws. He suggests six reforms that he believes would help boost economic growth and enhance liberty.


Nothing in this Research & Commentary is intended to influence the passage of legislation, and it does not necessarily represent the views of The Heartland Institute. For further information on this and other topics, visit the Budget & Tax News website, The Heartland Institute’s website, and PolicyBot, Heartland’s free online research database.

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