There’s always something to howl about

Beating the IRS One Regulation at a Time

Occupational licensing is a tricky topic for those of us who have “professional” occupations. The notion that any old schmuck can simply hang out a shingle – in the case of a law practice – or open a brokerage with nothing more than a computer, smartphone, and printer – in the case of real estate – strikes fear in the hearts of established practitioners and of busybodies everywhere.

What about the ignorant public? What about the sacred profession (whichever profession) we’re a part of? What about my own livelihood?

If there are oxes to be gored, we’d prefer they be other peoples’ oxes. Not our own.

It didn’t used to be so. Occupational licensing and testing and fee-paying and continuing professional education programs didn’t really get going until the 1920s, a consequence of the progressive movement. In the 1950s, only about 1 in 20 American workers needed the government’s permission before pursuing their chosen occupation. Today, it’s almost one in three. Greg’s called this Rotarian socialism.

Enter the Internal Revenue Service. For nearly 100 years, tax preparers were unlicensed. Consumers – i.e., filers – could make their own decisions about whom they wished to hire in order to prepare their taxes. Civil and criminal statutes can punish preparers who prepare inaccurate or fraudulent returns.

But in 2011, the IRS decided these laws were not enough, and imposed sweeping changes that would require tax preparers to apply for licenses from the IRS in order to prepare federal tax returns on behalf of clients. The new regulations require all paid tax return preparers—except for attorneys and CPAS-to become a “registered tax return preparer” by taking and passing a competency examination, and paying application fees. They would also require preparers to complete 15 hours of continuing education.

The regulations did not spring ex nihilo into existence. They were largely drafted by the former CEO of H&R Block. Most occupational licensing helps big firms or brokerages which can bear the cost of training employees and paying fees, and who benefit disproportionately when small and independent providers are kept out of the business.

My good friend Dan Alban, an attorney for the Institute for Justice, a libertarian non-profit law firm that sues the government on issues relating to licensing, eminent domain, economic freedom, school choice, and the like, won a tremendous victory on January 18 when a federal district court judge struck down the the IRS’ licensing scheme, saying that the Congress had never given the IRS the power to regulate tax preparers and the IRS could not unilaterally grab this power on its own.

The IRS has since appealed the ruling, and asked for the judge to lift the injunction that has put a stop to these regulations.

I would not expect this battle to be over so quickly. The big tax preparers certainly have the ability to lobby Congress to grant the IRS this regulatory authority, even if the IRS loses on this particular issue.

That would be a shame. As I noted on my blog in a different context, there’s no evidence that compulsory educational requirements imposed by certain states on lawyers have any positive benefit for the public.

Whenever I broach the subject of the bar, the bar exam, and licensing regulations, lawyers I talk to acknowledge how ineffective these rules and requirements are. But in the next breath, they worry about the flood of people who would join the profession if we didn’t have such barriers to entry.

The idea that we should be free to pursue a profession or a job used to be a quintessentially American idea. But no longer…

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