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One Woman’s Fight Against Hair-Brained Regulation

Melanie Armstrong dreamed of teaching young women how to braid hair. She had grown up watching her mother’s hands sweep past her eyes like brush strokes, lending each strand on her head a purpose in beauty. Armstrong’s ambition was to build a business passing on her inherited love for braiding, and so she did. Until, one day, a notice arrived. It was addressed from the cosmetology licensing board of her home state in Mississippi. She was told she must cease operations immediately and undergo intensive training, or else. Melanie Armstrong chose to fight.

Mississippi required Armstrong to take 3,200 classroom hours to earn her license in cosmetology. In that same time, she could have become licensed as an emergency medical technician, paramedic, ambulance driver, law enforcement officer, firefighter, real estate appraiser, and hunting instructor — and still have more than 600 hours left to earn her license to practice braiding. Of these 3,200 class hours, not a single one was spent teaching hair braiding.

An occupational license is a government permission slip to enter a field of work. Since 1950, there has been a five-fold increase in the share of the workforce covered by state licensing laws alone. Of the one in three fields nationwide now requiring some form of permission to enter, interior designers, cosmetologists, truck and bus drivers, and pest control applicators are among the most heavily regulated. Out of some 102 licensed occupations studied by Institute for Justice, a public interest law firm, they required on average some nine months of education, $209 in fees, and one examination. That does not include time spent filling out applications, money paid on tuition, or income foregone while in training.

In many professions, these regulations perform an important role. A license to practice medicine, for instance, is intended to boost quality and provide consumers with information that protects them against incompetent practitioners. However, some licensing regimes may simply be vehicles for rent-seeking and protecting insiders. Active license-holders, for instance, make up 90% of the licensing boards in Florida and 93% in Tennessee. People with skin in the game are deciding the rules of the game.

Occupational regulations vary dramatically from state-to-state, even when the practices of these fields do not, suggesting the arbitrary nature of these standards. Michigan’s security guards must undergo three years of education to earn their license rather than the 11 days or less demanded in other states. Moreover, these rules do not consistently reflect public needs. Landscapers and manicurists often face more onerous hurdles than, say, emergency medical technicians serving on the front lines of health.

Protections for licensed practitioners frequently come at the expense of excluded workers and consumers. Wages diverge and prices rise, while labor efficiency and geographic mobility fall. Unlicensed workers earn 10% to 15% less than the licensed earn. Consumers pay anywhere from 3% to 16% more for goods and services without seeing any increase in quality. Meanwhile, simply moving across state lines is a frustrating hurdle for licensed workers. More than a third of military spouses work in such professions and are ten times more likely than their civilian counterparts to move out of state in the last year.

Fighting onerous occupational licensing regimes is a lawyer’s game. Groups such as Institute for Justice help courts and legislatures ensure public rules are serving the public interest. Holding regulators accountable is not necessarily about threatening stable, well-paid jobs, but ensuring that everyone has a choice in which opportunities they pursue. Rolling back excessive licensing safeguards consumers from being unfairly exploited by overly redistributive, cronyist forces.

Occupational licensing all too often acts as a roadblock in people’s lives. And like Robin Hood in reverse, they divert wages from poorer outsiders to wealthier insiders. Good jobs should not be choked off with red tape. America should be marked by permissionless success.

Melanie Armstrong decided to take her future in her hands. In 2004, she filed suit against the State of Mississippi. Along with two aspiring hair braiders and the Institute for Justice, Armstrong petitioned the courts to roll back the regulatory barriers facing her profession. The next year her suit and weekly trips to the state capital in Jackson paid off: the Mississippi governor signed legislation enabling hair braiders to practice without the need for thousands of hours in classes. Since then, nearly a thousand Mississippians, mostly women, have begun to provide for themselves by practicing or teaching hair braiding.

“For many of these women, the money they earn from braiding represents the first steady paycheck they have earned in their lives,” said Armstrong ten years later, now the owner of Naturally Speaking hair braiding salon in Tupelo, Mississippi. Yet, “In too many states and in too many occupations across the country, these kinds of government-imposed barriers to earn an honest living still exist.”

America needs more Melanie Armstrongs.

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