It came across my news feed this morning that teens in Gardendale, AL, cannot mow lawns for a summer job unless they apply for a business license, which costs $110 (plus a day of dealing with city paperwork).

This story is a perfect example of what licensure regulations are really about and why they are completely at odds with basic human rights. Let’s begin by noticing how this came up in the first place.

Young Alainna Paris was mowing her neighbors’ lawns for $20–$40 each. Now, many teens earn extra money mowing lawns, and yet there don’t seem to be a lot of law-enforcement resources dedicated to licensure enforcement.

So how did Alainna’s illegal lawnmowing come to the attention of the authorities? Someone with a lawn company, upset by the prospect of competition, filed a complaint. This isn’t an accident. That’s the point of the licensure regulations — protecting established interests from competition.

In Howie Baetjer’s now-famous article about hair braiding, the reason a 14-year-old was put on the spot was exactly the same: someone else resented the competition, and used the licensure laws as a cudgel. But this isn’t a misuse of those laws — that’s what they’re for.

Outsourced Chores

I mowed the occasional lawn for money when I was Alainna’s age. When you’re 14 or 15, especially in the summer, your opportunity cost is extremely low. But for the grown-ups who own lawns, it’s a chore. Grown-ups have lots of them: lawn care, oil change, shopping, laundry, vacuuming, cooking, driving your kids from here to there, raising crops.

Actually, for most grown-ups today, raising crops isn’t on the chore list at all — we pay other people to raise crops for us. Now consider the other chores on that list; these are all things we could potentially pay someone else to do. Everyone is a little different here — I do my own yard work, but outsource the oil changes. Some people pay others for all of them. I would outsource more of them if they cost less.

Alainna’s potential customers can afford lawnmowing at one price point, but not necessarily at another. So Alainna’s willingness to mow lawns for less than the professional lawn care company means that she gets to earn some extra money over the summer, and various neighbors get relieved of a couple of iterations of an unpleasant chore. That’s all to the good — unless you run the lawn care company. Then you see Alainna as taking money away from you.

Leave aside for a moment that you are not entitled to anyone’s business in the first place. But many of Alainna’s customers are likely to be people who wouldn’t pay for the more expensive lawn care service in the first place. If the choice is “do it myself or pay Alainna 20 bucks,” that’s a different decision than “do it myself or sign up for 800 dollars’ worth of lawn service.”

Alainna may be siphoning off some business, but she is also creating markets where none had existed. The licensure regulations are there to make it harder for her to do that.

Crony Capitalism

The bearers of the burden of licensure regulations like this include both young people trying to make some honest money, and also lower-income people who would benefit from a more affordable service.

Who benefits? Larger lawn service companies, and of course the taxman.

This is crony capitalism in microcosm: the established firms lobby for regulations that burden would-be competitors, which protects them from competition, and the municipality or the state is happy to put the regulations in place, which become a revenue source. Alainna’s story puts in clear view how these restrictions on entrepreneurship and competition harm the many to give an unearned benefit to the few.

More philosophically, if you need a license to do something, it means you are required to ask permission — indeed, you have to pay the state to ask permission. This is very different from having a right to do something. I would argue that Alainna has the right to choose to sell her time and sweat to someone who would rather not do yard work. That’s what it means to be a free person.