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.