Untangle Occupational Licensing

by Paul Avelar
The Institute for Justice is launching a national campaign against pointless government job licensing.

America may like to think of itself as the land of opportunity, but for many millions of Americans, the dream of working in a job of their own choosing or operating their own small business is an unnecessary nightmare. Why? Because all kinds of jobs require a government occupational license just to earn an honest living.

When most people think of licensing, they think of doctors or lawyers. They probably don’t think of hair braiders. But natural-hair braiding, popular with many African Americans, requires an occupational license in two dozen states. The business employs thousands of Americans and has created a flourishing industry of small-business owners, largely from minority and immigrant communities.

They manage to do so despite the fact that 24 states regulate braiders as “cosmetologists,” a costly occupational license. Hair braiders don’t use dyes or chemicals or cut hair, but they’re forced to spend thousands of hours attending cosmetology schools, learning skills they will never use in their salons. These braiders have to sacrifice months of work and thousands of dollars in tuition (schools can cost upwards of $20,000) before they can legally braid hair.

This is not right and not constitutional.

Today the Institute for Justice launched a national initiative to protect the rights of natural-hair braiders. Like all Americans, braiders have a right to do business free from irrational regulations. To that end, IJ has filed three civil-rights lawsuits, in Arkansas, Missouri, and Washington, all of which treat natural-hair braiding as cosmetology.

These cases are just the latest in IJ’s long line of defending entrepreneurs. In fact, the Institute’s very first case was filed on behalf of Taalib-Din Abdul Uqdah and his wife Pamela Ferrell, who had been harassed by the Washington, D.C., cosmetology board for more than a decade. After IJ sued the board, the D.C. city council voted to create a new, less burdensome license for hair braiders.

Since then, the Institute for Justice has won five more legislative victories, easing laws and freeing braiders in Arizona, Ohio, Minnesota, Mississippi, and Washington State. IJ has also won court decisions in California and Utah that struck down anti-braiding laws as unconstitutional.

Thanks to the explosive growth of occupational licensing, burdensome regulations affect more than just hair braiders. In the 1950s, only one out of every 20 workers needed a government license to work. But today, that number has skyrocketed to nearly one out of every three Americans. Besides hair braiders, IJ has fought for florists, interior designers, teeth whiteners, make-up artists, horse massagers, and even casket-making monks, who have all run afoul of licensing regimes.

Licensing proponents typically claim these laws ensure quality and protect public health and safety. But there are two major flaws with that argument. First, most licensing requirements can be completely irrelevant. Take hair braiders. In the 24 states that mandate a cosmetology license for braiders, braiders must master skills far removed from simply braiding hair, such as coloring, waxing, and bleaching hair, and giving perms, facials, manicures, and pedicures. In Missouri, one of the states that IJ is suing, only 4 percent of the coursework is actually devoted to sanitation and sterilization. Not a single hour listed in the mandatory curriculum teaches natural-hair braiding.

Second, many licenses and other government restrictions aren’t demanded by a clamoring public, but by established businesses. Licenses and other regulations limit competition and enrich existing players at the expense of everyone else. According to research by University of Minnesota professor Morris Kleiner, licensing inflates wages by 18 percent and costs consumers more than $200 billion each year. Rolling back occupational licensing could create almost 3 million new jobs.

Victories in today’s three constitutional lawsuits will not only vindicate the rights of braiders but also establish legal precedents to protect the economic liberty of grassroots entrepreneurs everywhere.

— Paul Avelar is an attorney at the Institute for Justice, which today launched a national legal initiative to combat unconstitutional laws governing hair braiding. Find out more at BraidingFreedom.com.