There is broad, bipartisan agreement, from former president Barack Obama to Milton Friedman, that America today regulates away economic growth and opportunity by erecting unreasonable barriers to participation in labor markets. Lobbied by special interest groups, states have built ever-expanding mazes of difficult and bewildering red tape that discourage people from finding employment. One particularly egregious example of over-demanding licensing schemes can be found in Chapters 5-10 of the Rhode Island Statutes, which control the regulation of barbering and hairdressing in the state. Before you can legally make a dollar cutting hair, you have to have graduated high school. You must disclose all your criminal convictions, even though “ban the box” legislation made that policy illegal in the private sector five years ago. And, worst of all, you have to go through nine months of full-time training, when, for comparison, it takes only five months to become a police officer in the state. It’s too hard to get a job cutting hair, but luckily there is a very simple remedy: Repeal Chapters 5-10 of the Rhode Island Statutes.
I think the current licensing system is unreasonably burdensome, but to prove that I first want to establish a framework for thinking about what makes a license reasonable in the first place. First, it seems reasonable to me that we should assume a sort of standing, a priori right that everyone has to engage in the market and provide for themselves. This right has the convenient effect of being associated with economic benefits as well. If people can freely enter a market and sell their services, not only do they get jobs, but they serve to raise the supply of the service they are producing. All else constant, this lowers the price of the service to a more competitive level, where producers are still happy to sell their services and consumers are even happier to buy them. In short, more economic freedom produces economic gains.
Second, it seems reasonable that we as a society, using the levers of government, should curtail that right if that one person’s right to practice any job with freedom sufficiently hurts other people. As has been said, my right to swing my fist ends where your face begins. Similarly, my right to be an open heart surgeon ends where your right not to die from malpractice begins. In other words, licensing makes a lot of sense when there is a harm to the public that outweighs the benefits. Conversely, if a license does so much harm to the agency of individuals and the economy overall that it outweighs the public harms the license was supposed to prevent, then it should get the boot.
So, how do we know that Rhode Island’s hairdressing license is out of proportion? For one thing, it is very unclear that the license actually saves the public from any danger. A 2013 paper by Mark Klee finds, counterintuitively, that “neither overall licensing policy nor any dimension of licensing policy seems to aﬀect” the level of vocational training for cosmetologists. If you want safer haircuts, it seems that training-hour requirements are ineffective even at boosting the level of training in the labor force, let alone overall safety. Vox’s Matt Yglesias fairly points out that “People don’t die of bad haircuts, and since hairstyle is a quintessential matter of taste, there’s absolutely no reason to think consumers can’t figure out for themselves who has a decent reputation as a cutter of hair.” Approach the question from a third angle: Have you ever gotten a haircut you were unsatisfied with from a Rhode Island barbershop? I’ll go out on a limb and say that despite the presence of low-quality haircuts in the market, you still probably managed to find yourself a different haircutter that met your standards. Indeed, Britain has no licensing for hairdressers at all, and people manage. Here’s the essential question: Is saving yourself from a bad haircut, keeping in mind that there is pretty solid evidence that the current licensing system is bad at doing that, worth denying people access to a livelihood? Is it worth making haircuts more expensive for you and everyone else in the state?
As dubious as the costs of freedom are, the costs of licensing are pretty staggering. Licensing of barbers reduces the probability of a black individual working as a barber by 17.3 percent, according to a study published by the Mercatus Center at George Mason University. Every 100 hours of training required adds $2.15 to the price of beauty salon visits. Licensing, by making it more difficult for job-seekers to enter new lines of business and employment, harms social mobility. And, as an Obama White House report notes, low-income entrepreneurship activity takes a hit as well.
Is the current licensing system worth it? I sure don’t think so. But, lest you think there’s a coherent defense to be made of the current system that I’m not portraying, consider this: The official definitions for hairdressing and barbering in Rhode Island state law are each around 100 words and share nine key phrases — but, in the eyes of the law, they are different professions, with different licensing requirements. Both occupations deal with “cutting” hair. Both work on the “scalp, face, or neck.” Both color hair. Both dress hair. The list goes on to frustration, and it’s very hard to imagine catching a clever barber masquerading as a hairdresser, inflicting hidden terror on the population by having escaped training with fully 300 hours less than they needed to be safe. The truth is, nobody — not even the author of these licensing rules — has put forward a reasonable explanation for the system as it stands.
The larger battle over how much occupational licensing is too much is not going to be resolved today, nor should it be. There are gray areas, occupations where good arguments exist on each side of the debate. But hairdressing is an easy case. Our community should not allow such an obviously counterproductive policy to continue.
Austin Rose ’19 is happy to have supporters in his effort to fight nonsensical occupational licensing rules, and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org Please send responses to this op-ed to email@example.com and op-eds to firstname.lastname@example.org.