We’ve all heard of the fashion police but probably assumed that was just a figure of speech. It turns out, however, that if you don’t have the bureaucratic blessing of a license and yet deign to select drapes, recommend paintings, or (horrors!) place Persian rugs and decorative partitions for a non-residence in Florida, you could be sent to prison for up to one year. Further, if you hire a person without a license to do these things for you, both of you could be sent to prison for up to one year. Sadly, this is not a joke.
Florida is one of a few states that have indeed outlawed the unlicensed practice of interior design. The Florida legislature is currently reconsidering these prohibitions, but for the time being violators remain subject to prosecution and prison time.
In fact, criminal laws on the books in Florida carry the potential of prison time for anyone who – without a state-issued license – goes into business to decorate your office, braid your hair, or arrange your flowers. Maybe in some alternate universe arranging hair and flowers borders on criminal conduct (and florists’ holiday prices have certainly evoked comparisons to robbery). But in this universe we should be forgiven if we fail to see grave threats to public health and safety from someone’s pulling your locks too tightly or unevenly or failing to intersperse sufficient baby’s breath and greenery in your bouquet.
You need not rely on your own common sense or my word to conclude that unlicensed interior design causes no harm. The Florida regulatory board who enforces the law told a federal court in writing that neither it nor the State of Florida could present “any evidence that licensing of interior designers has led to better job performance by interior designers, greater safety, fewer building code violations, or otherwise benefited the public in any demonstrable way.” In other words, allowing Florida’s interior-design regulations to remain in place would be a victory only for an anti-competitive cartel and its lobbyists.
Florida enacted its first law regulating individuals’ use of the term “interior designer” in 1988. Whether they were engaged in interior design for homes or offices, unlicensed persons could no longer call themselves “interior designers” or offer to perform “interior design” services. Then in 1994, Florida outlawed the unlicensed practice of interior design for non-residential clients of any size.
As one might suspect, these laws were not spontaneous responses by a concerned legislature to hideously passé drapes and rugs, glaring abuses of track lighting, or other catastrophically bad taste. A trade group, the American Society of Interior Designers (ASID), and its members lobbied for the 1988 and 1994 laws outlawing unlicensed interior designers. These self-interested parties were careful to ensure that the original laws did not apply to them. Thus, they successfully persuaded the Florida legislature to erect anti-competitive barriers to the entry of new competitors in their industry.
This is not to say that the only parties benefitting from the regulations are members of the anti-competitive interior design cartel. A private law firm has received over a half million dollars a year from the state to collect and investigate complaints from cartel members and present and prosecute cases at hearings. Is it possible that when deciding whether and how aggressively to enforce an alleged violation, attorneys in a private law firm might have their judgment skewed by the money they are being paid to enforce the law? But perhaps it should be no surprise that the anti-competitive and self-interested regulatory scheme for interior design ended up with a flawed, self-interested enforcement mechanism.
Criminalization for protectionist purposes is immoral. It trivializes and undermines Americans’ respect for the law and for the criminal justice system. Samuel Johnson probably did not foresee that one of the last refuges of self-interested scoundrels in the post-modern world would be the ability to criminalize whatever conduct they do not like, even socially and economically beneficial conduct that causes harm to no one.
Legislators often seem to have forgotten that they can repeal bad laws. Many state and federal laws and regulations are improperly motivated, dangerous, counter-productive, or all of the above. Such backwards, anti-competitive policies are fit only for the legislative dumpster.