John Stuart Mill: Certification, Not Licensing

Miles’s Certificate for the highest level of training for the Bowen Technique

Miles’s Certificate for the highest level of training for the Bowen Technique

As I do, John Stuart Mill felt a close connection between education policy and certification and licensing policy. I am leery of the overgrowth of licensing requirements for relatively safe occupations, but if we are unable to eliminate them, at least we should make the requirements simple enough that it possible for students to graduate from high school with several licenses–something I proposed in “Magic Ingredient 1: More K-12 School.” 

If we can improve evaluation methods, it is much better to certify skills than it is to certify that someone has taken a certain number of classes with passing grades, as I argue in “The Coming Transformation of Education: Degrees Won’t Matter Anymore, Skills Will.” 

As for licensing itself, although they are often spoken of in the same breath, there is a world of difference between certification and licensing. Certification requirements say that you have to inform customers of your level of qualifications or lack of qualifications in unmistakable ways, according to a well-defined terminology established by the government. They are based on the principle of telling the truth and not deceiving, but do entail some details to make sure no one misunderstands. 

By contrast, licensing requirements say you can be thrown in jail for getting paid for something that someone with an absolutely crystal clear idea of your lack of qualifications is perfectly happy to pay you to do. For example, I would run afoul of the law in Michigan if I cut someone else’s hair for pay–a law ultimately backed up by the threat of throwing me in jail, even if the initial penalty is only a fine. The real reason for that stipulation is that barbers want that barrier to entry in place (I think at least a year and a half of training), not any danger that I will seriously harm someone with a basic haircut. I express some of how wrong I think the overgrowth of licensing requirements is in my post “When the Government Says “You May Not Have a Job.”

Up at the top you see my certificate for the highest level of training in a form of bodywork called the Bowen Technique, which I wrote about in my post “Tom Bowen’s Gift to Humanity: A Powerful Australian Technology.” It is not as if I have time in any case, but a few years ago, I could have hung up a shingle as a bodyworker (the category of someone who has not jumped through any state-defined hoops) and treated people without violating the law. Michigan seems to be going in the direction of many states and requiring a license for any body work, which in some places would require a large amount of training in other modes of body work such as massage therapy (about a year’s worth of additional training). 

John Stuart Mill, in paragraph 14 of “On Liberty “Chapter V: Applications” (which I preface with the last sentence of paragraph 13 for context) explains how to get the benefits of certification without having the government force conformity in education or saying one cannot do a job without jumping through hoops that often have little to do with what one’s skill would be at doing a job. Here are the ground rules John suggests: 

But in general, if the country contains a sufficient number of persons qualified to provide education under government auspices, the same persons would be able and willing to give an equally good education on the voluntary principle, under the assurance of remuneration afforded by a law rendering education compulsory, combined with State aid to those unable to defray the expense.

The instrument for enforcing the law could be no other than public examinations, extending to all children, and beginning at an early age. An age might be fixed at which every child must be examined, to ascertain if he (or she) is able to read. If a child proves unable, the father, unless he has some sufficient ground of excuse, might be subjected to a moderate fine, to be worked out, if necessary, by his labour, and the child might be put to school at his expense. Once in every year the examination should be renewed, with a gradually extending range of subjects, so as to make the universal acquisition, and what is more, retention, of a certain minimum of general knowledge, virtually compulsory. Beyond that minimum, there should be voluntary examinations on all subjects, at which all who come up to a certain standard of proficiency might claim a certificate. To prevent the State from exercising, through these arrangements, an improper influence over opinion, the knowledge required for passing an examination (beyond the merely instrumental parts of knowledge, such as languages and their use) should, even in the higher classes of examinations, be confined to facts and positive science exclusively. The examinations on religion, politics, or other disputed topics, should not turn on the truth or falsehood of opinions, but on the matter of fact that such and such an opinion is held, on such grounds, by such authors, or schools, or churches. Under this system, the rising generation would be no worse off in regard to all disputed truths, than they are at present; they would be brought up either churchmen or dissenters as they now are, the State merely taking care that they should be instructed churchmen, or instructed dissenters. There would be nothing to hinder them from being taught religion, if their parents chose, at the same schools where they were taught other things. All attempts by the State to bias the conclusions of its citizens on disputed subjects, are evil; but it may very properly offer to ascertain and certify that a person possesses the knowledge, requisite to make his conclusions, on any given subject, worth attending to. A student of philosophy would be the better for being able to stand an examination both in Locke and in Kant, whichever of the two he takes up with, or even if with neither: and there is no reasonable objection to examining an atheist in the evidences of Christianity, provided he is not required to profess a belief in them. The examinations, however, in the higher branches of knowledge should, I conceive, be entirely voluntary. It would be giving too dangerous a power to governments, were they allowed to exclude any one from professions, even from the profession of teacher, for alleged deficiency of qualifications: and I think, with Wilhelm von Humboldt, that degrees, or other public certificates of scientific or professional acquirements, should be given to all who present themselves for examination, and stand the test; but that such certificates should confer no advantage over competitors, other than the weight which may be attached to their testimony by public opinion.

The US Treasury has a report out on Occupational Licensing Reform that I hope to talk about in some detail in a later post. But you might want to read it before then. Here is the link.