Wondering why it’s hard to get a job or why childcare is expensive? Think it possible that occupational licensing restrictions are at least partially to blame. At Reason, Eric Boehm reports on an Institute for Justice lawsuit challenging a Washington, DC rule that will by 2020 require people to have at least a two-year college degree to be eligible to teach preschool. The rule would put childcare workers like Ilumi Sanchez out of a job and make it even harder for low-income households to find affordable preschool options (the R Street Institute commented on the requirement in December).

Isn’t the rule necessary, though? Isn’t it there to ensure that our kids stay safe or that our kids are cared for only by the most qualified?

No and no. For a lot of people, the relevant substitute for low-quality childcare isn’t high-quality childcare. It’s no childcare—and therefore, most likely, no job—at all. It’s by no means clear that a kid who would have been in a low-quality daycare would be safer or better cared for, on net, by his or her (unlicensed!) parent in his or her (unregulated!) home. It might reduce the number of injuries at daycare facilities by increasing the number of injuries elsewhere.

Even when kids are involved, it’s possible to be too careful. In response to the greater inconvenience associated with heightened airport security after 9/11, more people started driving rather than flying. On a per-passenger-mile basis, driving is much more dangerous than flying.

With respect to quality, it’s reasonable to suspect that better pre-k and daycare workers will mean better learning outcomes later in life—but this is only true if that care is attainable. Rules requiring degrees for childcare workers will make care more expensive and less attainable for low-income parents.

So who does it help? It helps existing childcare providers with the necessary qualifications by limiting their competition. It benefits colleges that offer degrees in the required fields by increasing demand for their services. It flatters the conceit of the man (or woman) of system, as described by Adam Smith in The Theory of Moral Sentiments:

The man of system...is apt to be very wise in his own conceit; and is often so enamoured with the supposed beauty of his own ideal plan of government, that he cannot suffer the smallest deviation from any part of it. He goes on to establish it completely and in all its parts, without any regard either to the great interests, or to the strong prejudices which may oppose it. He seems to imagine that he can arrange the different members of a great society with as much ease as the hand arranges the different pieces upon a chess-board. He does not consider that the pieces upon the chess-board have no other principle of motion besides that which the hand impresses upon them; but that, in the great chess-board of human society, every single piece has a principle of motion of its own, altogether different from that which the legislature might chuse to impress upon it. If those two principles coincide and act in the same direction, the game of human society will go on easily and harmoniously, and is very likely to be happy and successful. If they are opposite or different, the game will go on miserably, and the society must be at all times in the highest degree of disorder.

Smith makes an under-appreciated point that, I think, provides a pretty effective answer to claims that parents just don’t know any better and need to be protected from their own bad choices. We make bad choices all the time, but this doesn’t mean regulators are better-positioned to choose on our behalf. After all, this is a policy that’s pretty poorly thought through—and thus it doesn’t give me a lot of confidence in the people who presume to know better than the rest of us what we should choose.