Law & Principles

Protecting Oklahomans from Nefarious Interior Designers

November 4, 2008

Art Carden

Should “Joe the Plumber” be allowed to do plumbing work without all the requisite licenses and affiliations? What if he were calling himself an interior designer?

In a recent article in Regulation magazine (“Designing Cartels Through Censorship”), Dick M. Carpenter II and John K. Ross of the Institute for Justice discuss how states, including Oklahoma, are passing regulations—such as license or title laws—on interior design.

I recently read Francis Schaeffer’s compelling A Christian Manifesto, in which he argues that there are situations in which we have not just the right but the moral duty to disobey the state. Let’s go ahead and take Romans 13 as the standard by which the state’s justice is measured, and assume for the sake of argument that states and state-like organizations are restricted to punishing evil and rewarding good. Now let’s consider whether interior design regulations measure up.

Do regulations on interior design punish evil and reward good? Certainly not. One justification for these regulations is that they prevent unscrupulous unlicensed designers from committing crimes against their unwitting customers—say, by recommending venetian blinds that don’t match the curtains—but this is similar to the punishment of “precrime” in the movie “Minority Report.” In an imperfect world there will always be unscrupulous people doing unscrupulous things, but fraud and deceit are best handled by a sound legal system than by entrenched bureaucracy.

So what is rewarded and punished in a regime where interior design is regulated? It’s actually the perverse opposite of what the state is enjoined to do in the Bible. The state punishes those who do good (those who provide services that customers are willing to pay for at a price they are willing to pay) and rewards those who do evil (those who use the coercive power of the state to prevent people from entering the marketplace and earning a living).

At the risk of running afoul of Oklahoma law, allow me to make a couple of recommendations as an unlicensed “interior designer.” I’m a big fan of functionality in interior design, and my wife has a special gift for finding great, functional furniture at thrift stores and junk shops, which she can then paint to match the rest of our furniture. Hence, our living room furniture is an eclectic mix of stuff we bought new (our couch and our big comfy chair) and stuff we got at thrift stores. If you want to save money and live in a comfortable, ambient environment, I recommend that you do the same.

We also have several paintings and prints hanging on the walls: one is a print that we won in a giveaway on a cruise ship; the other was a wedding gift from my sister-in-law (who studied art in college), and the other is an excellent painting that my wife (untrained in painting, and unlicensed!) did. All three match our decor and provide a nice balance in our living room and dining room.

Here are my interior design recommendations for people who want to live like economics professors: scour thrift stores and junk shops, keep an eye open for stuff people are throwing away, and go for “functional” rather than “cute.”

Suffice it to say that taking fashion or interior design advice from an economics professor is probably not a very good idea. As my wife can no doubt tell you emphatically, interior design is absolutely not my comparative advantage; ergo, it stands to reason that I would probably be smacked around by the invisible hand and then led to other employments if I tried to do this professionally. You follow my unregulated advice at your own peril, and no government has the right to deny you that choice.

This introduces all sorts of thorny issues. Once the regulatory ball gets rolling, when do we stop it? I’m a professor at a school in Tennessee and I wrote the first draft of this article from a friend’s finished basement in West Virginia for a think tank in Oklahoma. I don’t want to open Pandora’s Box here, but isn’t this interstate commerce? Shouldn’t there be a federal agency charged with regulating interstate trade in interior design tips? Where does it all end?

There is no plausible economic justification for government regulation of interior design rather than private certification. The idea that the state has the legitimate authority to tell people whether they can or cannot recommend shades of paint without a license is a moral absurdity.

Art Carden (Ph.D., Washington University) is an assistant professor of economics and business at Rhodes College and an adjunct fellow of the Independent Institute. He has been a visiting research fellow at the American Institute for Economic Research and a summer research fellow at the Ludwig von Mises Institute.