Tired of High Health Care Costs? Look at Misbehaving Dentists and the Licenses That Enable Them

With memories of a certain scene from Marathon Man fading, it’s likely that most Americans have a pretty positive view of dentists. They keep our choppers in decent working order despite a wide range of neglect and abuse of the pearly whites. But there is a darker side of the profession, which has developed a reputation for playing hardball in protecting its licensed practitioners from potential competition. It’s an object lesson in the dangers of occupational licensing—a demonstration that letting any industry coopt the coercive power of government does little to help consumers, while protecting the paychecks and prerogatives of the licensed few.

“Lawmakers from Maine to Alaska see a different side of dentists and their lobby, the American Dental Association, describing a political force so unified, so relentless and so thoroughly woven into American communities that its clout rivals that of the gun lobby,” the Washington Post reported earlier this month.

You know reporters are troubled by bad behavior when they compare it to “the gun lobby”—culturally parochial modern journalists’ equivalent of invoking the devil. But what they report is truly troubling. The Post adds, “Critics say the ADA has worked to scuttle competition that could improve access to dental care in underserved areas and make routine checkups and fillings more affordable.”

The article goes on to detail efforts by organized dentists to intimidate lawmakers who consider allowing competition by dental therapists—non-dentist practitioners who can offer basic dental care at lower cost than dentists. It also discusses battles waged by the Federal Trade Commission against state dental boards—regulatory bodies run, as is the case with most licensing bodies, by and for the benefit of existing practitioners in the industry they oversee.

“The Federal Trade Commission today announced a consent order settling charges brought in September 2003 that the…

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