Matthew Yglesias uses an unli­censed bar­ber—himself—and seems to man­age just fine with­out it. I did the same thing for roughly two years, and lived to tell the tale. But should Yglesias or I try to sell our ser­vices to other peo­ple, he or I would run straight into the D.C. Barber and Cosmetology Board, which requires 1,500 hours of train­ing. What does one spend 1,500 hours of cos­me­tol­ogy train­ing doing? 40 hours learn­ing how to sham­poo­ing (mas­sage sham­poo into hair, rinse, repeat); 50 hours learn­ing per­sonal hygiene (wash your hands after using the restroom); 150 hours study­ing anatomy, phys­i­ol­ogy, bac­te­ri­ol­ogy, pathol­ogy, chem­istry, and elec­tric­ity (use clean equip­ment between cus­tomers); and another 1,260 doing other sim­i­lar tasks. Learning to cut hair? 100 hours.

One shouldn’t have to spend 100 hours of learn­ing how to cut hair—plus 1,400 hours learn­ing other related (and unre­lated) subjects—before offer­ing to cut oth­ers’ hair for money. Yes: there are poten­tial dan­gers in using sharp tools and caus­tic chem­i­cals around peo­ple. But it seems unlikely that 1,500 hours of train­ing is nec­es­sary to train a would-​​be hair­styl­ist not to run with scis­sors and to fol­low the instruc­tions on the perm box. All jok­ing aside, though, the dan­ger is rel­a­tively low, and what dan­ger there is is already addressed through the harm to rep­u­ta­tion and the civil lia­bil­ity that would fol­low sloppy or dan­ger­ous work. I have some­one else cut my hair now (Ryan P. at Bang Salon Metropole, in case you want to know), and I wouldn’t go to some­one who hadn’t had some train­ing, but that’s because I think a trained hair­styl­ist can con­sis­tently make my hair pre­sentable. I couldn’t care less whether the Barber and Cosmetology Board has seen fit to give some­one cre­den­tials; being employed at a rep­utable salon that would only hire some­one trained is enough for me.

Jonathan Adler points out that major sup­port­ers of licens­ing regimes are often the very folks who would ben­e­fit from lim­it­ing poten­tial competitors:

Licenses restrict entry and reduce  com­pe­ti­tion, enabling  those with licenses to cap­ture more rents.  This is actu­ally the case with most licens­ing regimes, even those that appear to serve a greater pub­lic inter­est than bar­ber licenses.  Though I doubt Yglesias would go this far, I would argue that it’s rare that a licens­ing regime of this sort is put in place with­out the sup­port of those who stand to ben­e­fit eco­nom­i­cally, and that many pub­lic spir­ited ratio­nales, includ­ing health and safety, are a smokescreen.

Adler goes on to note that licens­ing and inspec­tion often becomes a tool for char­ac­ters who exploit their abil­ity to grant or deny licenses and note or ignore infractions.

It’s also impor­tant to remem­ber that the cre­ation of a licens­ing, per­mit­ting and inspec­tion, or other reg­u­la­tory regime hardly guar­an­tees pro­tec­tion of the pub­lic inter­est, even if the sys­tem was not cre­ated for rent-​​seeking pur­poses in the first place.  Government reg­u­la­tors and inspec­tors are peo­ple too, and may shirk their respon­si­bil­i­ties, become cor­rupted, or oth­er­wise fail to safe­guard the pub­lic inter­est.  In many major cities, licens­ing and other local reg­u­la­tory regimes are oppor­tu­ni­ties for cor­rup­tion and graft.

Barber licens­ing, then, seems not only unnec­es­sary and harm­ful to com­pe­ti­tion, but also prone to abuse: more trou­ble than it’s worth.