Alabama to Revive Long-Dead Barber Statute

Nostalgia for the good ol’ days of economic protectionism has inspired a licensing resurrection in Alabama. The state deregulated barbers over 30 years ago in a move that also saw the demise of state professional boards for auctioneers, funeral services, floriculturists, “tree-surgeons” and others. But things are now changing quickly for barbers.

Passed last May, H.B. 184 has been rolling into effect in stages. By February 28, barbers will need to be licensed for the first time in three decades. Future barbers must complete 1,000 hours of education (roughly six months), or work under the immediate supervision of a licensed barber for 2,000 hours. By comparison, Alabama requires only 42 days of training to become an emergency medical technician and no training to become a pharmacy technician.

The new requirements have been sold to the public as necessary to ensure sanitation. But occupational licensing—needing the government’s permission to work—often does nothing to protect public health and safety, and instead serves to protect entrenched private interests. Indeed, proponents of the bill have argued that this licensing scheme will level the playing field. One of the main proponents, Bob McKee, executive director of the Alabama Board of Cosmetology, explained that cosmetologists supported the measure because they felt there was “unfair competition.” But protecting businesses from competition is not a legitimate use of government power.

The bill contains a grandfather clause, which allows current barbers to bypass the onerous education and examination requirements to obtain the new license. The burden of this new law rests on the shoulders of new entrepreneurs, who will have to break through these very high barriers in order to earn an honest living. But if the public was actually threatened by barbers who haven’t met educational and examination requirements, why would the state exempt those currently practicing—the very barbers who are supposedly threats—from these requirements? Rather, grandfather clauses serve to buy off current workers at the expense of future workers who would compete with them.

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Until now, Alabama has been the last state not to require a license to become a barber. Mr. McKee believes this is reason enough to regulate the industry: “If everybody else is doing it, there’s got to be a reason why they’re doing it, and that’s a pretty good argument to have regulation.” This rationale has rarely been a good reason for doing anything. If everyone else jumped off a cliff, would Mr. McKee think Alabama should follow?

As the Institute for Justice explains, the 14th Amendment of the Constitution guarantees Americans the right to earn an honest living, free from arbitrary and protectionist legislation that seeks to promote some businesses at the expense of others.

— Yitzy Muller
Yitzy Muller is a Maffucci Fellow at the Institute for Justice

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