Some people bury themselves in their work. At Saint Joseph Abbey in southern Louisiana, burying is the work.
Monks at Saint Joseph make inexpensive caskets—and would like to sell their handiwork to people who don’t want to throw money away on an item that’s just going to end up six feet underground.
But, the state of Louisiana requires a funeral home director’s license for selling caskets. And, it requires that caskets be sold only at licensed funeral establishments. Obtaining such a license takes years, and the requirements for running a licensed establishment are onerous. The monks don’t want to be funeral home directors—they just want to sell their wooden boxes.
A state board writes regulations for the entire state—nine of the board’s 10 members are funeral home directors. They’ve effectively formed a cartel to protect their business by preventing anyone else (in this case the monks) from offering lower prices in their industry.
Further, there’s no public good served here. Even if the caskets turned out to be defective in some way, who’s going to be harmed? Certainly not the people buried in them. The state’s law is cronyism, pure and simple, in the service of an established interest.
But there’s a happy ending to this tale. The monks refused to be bullied, and challenged the regulation by filing an action in federal court. The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit recently issued a ruling invalidating the Louisiana law: “The great deference due state economic regulation does not demand judicial blindness to the history of a challenged rule or the context of its adoption nor does it require courts to accept nonsensical explanations for regulation.” The court stated unequivocally that economic protection of a particular industry is not a legitimate use of government power.
This is good news. Not just for casket makers but for barbers, interior designers, flower arrangers, and anyone else who wants to enter a profession that requires a state or local license. Cronyism is a major problem for consumers. By reducing competition, it makes goods and services more expensive for all of us.
But, in Louisiana at least, death is no longer on that list.