For more than a century, the brothers at Saint Joseph Abbey in St. Benedict, Louisiana, have supported themselves through the making of simple caskets, but that way of life is now under attack. The state of Louisiana has taken the abbey and its leaders to court for violating laws that require caskets to be sold through licensed funeral homes, and the monks could face large fines and even jail time for offering its simplicity to consumers. The Institute for Justice has taken up their cause and have a new video introducing the case:
Under Louisiana law, it is a crime for anyone but a licensed funeral director to sell “funeral merchandise,” which includes caskets. To sell caskets legally, the monks would have to abandon their calling for one full year to apprentice at a licensed funeral home, learn unnecessary skills and take a funeral industry test. They would also have to convert their monastery into a “funeral establishment” by, among other things, installing equipment for embalming human remains.
On August 12, 2010, the Institute for Justice teamed up with the monks of Saint Joseph Abbey to file a federal constitutional lawsuit in the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Louisiana to vindicate their right to earn an honest living. In a time of 10 percent unemployment and widespread economic pessimism, this case raises one of today’s most important constitutional questions: May the government restrict economic liberty just to enrich a group of politically favored insiders such as licensed funeral directors?
Licensing laws are necessary in some limited applications, but they mainly serve to protect the largest players in a market from start-up competition. Once the licensing laws pass, those with a steady and significant income flow and existing capital equipment have little overhead to maintain licensing. Those who lack the means to pay for capital equipment and the time for long-term time commitments to unproductive tasks cannot compete with the industry establishment.
Here is the test one should apply. Does anyone think that the abbey’s caskets would be significantly improved by purchasing embalming equipment? Will a year studying funeral home processes and procedures make simple pine boxes any more reliable than they are now? If the answer is no to these questions — and no one is complaining, apparently, about the abbey’s products — then the licensing requirement is nothing more than protectionism for a cabal of funeral homes that prefer to keep consumers locked into products with high markup in their own parlors.
Louisiana voters should demand change in the state’s licensing laws to allow the monks and others to sell caskets while ensuring that funeral homes perform other services properly. Government restrictions on private enterprise should do no more than protect consumers from actual fraud while allowing the greatest amount of competition and market entry possible.