Week of August 2, 1999



My recent appearance on a talk radio show provided a graphic illustration of why freedom continues to slip from the grasp of its alleged defenders: most remain clueless about the meaning of a right and remain intellectual prisoners of statism’s most fundamental tenets.

The show’s host wanted to discuss the validity of the state’s licensing of radio and television stations.  He argued, correctly, that radio and television stations are private property and require no one’s permission to operate.  He went on to observe that licensing is not only a violation of property rights but a threat to freedom of speech since such stations can be silenced by the withdrawal of their license.  I agreed with what he had to say, but I took it a step farther: I rejected the validity of the very concept of licensing, as such, by the state.

The talk show host, while polite, clearly thought such an idea was absurd, that I must be a little goofy and my 15 minutes of fame quickly came to an end.  He agreed with one of statism’s most important and indispensable ideas: the state must license certain activities.

If you wish to forecast this country’s future, you must examine its basic premises.  It is especially revealing to look at any idea that is almost universally accepted, an idea that is virtually undisputed, accepted as valid by both statists and most defenders of freedom.  The validity of licensing by the state is such an idea.   And if freedom eventually collapses in America, it will be the result of such ideas held in common by statists and their opponents.

A license is a legal permit to take certain action.  What is the source of this concept?

If you own certain property, you have the right to control its use and disposal.   Your ownership means that you have the right to grant, or refuse, permission for its use.  You may issue a license, or a permit, for that property’s use. A license is necessarily tied to ownership.  Thus, if someone claims a right to issue a license, the unassailable implication and meaning is that this person owns the property being licensed.  The same is true of actions taken by an individual.  If you have the right to an action, you need no one’s permission, no license to undertake such action. In fact, the person who holds the power of licensing certain actions holds the ownership of the right to such actions.

Properly, and in a free society, licenses are issued only by private individuals and are a recognition of individual rights, of the fact that you may not use another person’s property without his permission.  Statists reverse this principle: you may not own certain property or take certain action without their permission.

A license is a legal prohibition of certain action without the express permission of the owner of the right to such action.  State licensing rests on the notion that the state, not you, is the owner of the action and/or property being licensed.

So-called professional licenses are nothing more than a permit, from the state, to live your life pursuing your chosen profession.  This means you do not have the right to engage in your selected profession.  You may only do so at the sufferance of the state.

We have licenses for barbers, plumbers, electricians, physicians, pilots, stockbrokers, engineers, teachers and a host of other professionals.  You must obtain a permit before occupying your newly constructed home.  You must, in most places, obtain a permit before opening a business.  You must obtain permission from the state before you can own certain property, such as a car, a boat or an airplane.  This country is drowning in licenses.  And what is being swept away by this flood of legal permits is the concept of a right—of that action you may take without anyone’s permission.

The validity of state licensing has sunk into the stagnant backwaters of so many minds that it has become one of the most formidable threats to freedom’s future.  Its acceptance as valid has provided statists with a tool with which they can continue to dismantle freedom.  If the state has the right to license one activity, then it may license any activity.  This is the logic that has driven the proliferation of licenses over the past few decades and continues to feed the growing call by statists to license even more areas of once-free life.

Now statists, such as Al Gore, are calling for the licensing of guns.  And they will win this argument as long as the validity of licensing continues to remain unchallenged.

Licenses, or permits, issued by the state stand in direct contradiction of rights.   They are the obliteration, intellectually and in practice, of rights.   Licenses (by the state) and rights are mutually exclusive.  It is either-or: either you have the right to certain action—or—you do not, and must get permission, a license, from the state for acting.  Take your pick.  You can’t have both.

Fulton Huxtable
August 2, 1999

Copyright 1999 Fulton Huxtable