Occupational Licensing

You Can't Flunk Shampoo If You Don't Use It

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The Illinois legislature is making headlines today for a massive 11th-hour, partisan tax hike, but the procrastinators in the outgoing legislature did manage to do one thing somewhat right: licensing requirements for hair braiders were reduced from ridiculous (1,500 hours) to a merely absurd 300 hours of instruction, plus a yearly 10-hour re-education requirement.

And so the old story goes: in 2001, the Illinois Cosmetology Association left their heads under the dryer too long and got steamed over people making money in the centuries-old art of African natural hair braiding. Braiders weren't shelling out the $15,000 required for a beauty school degree. How could they possibly be trusted with hair care? The Illinois Legislature dutifully responded to the calls for "consumer protection."

Dammit. She's got no diploma!

Veteran braiders, already proficient without anything but informal instruction, saw little need to pay for courses irrelevant to their craft. The new law also gave licensed cosmetologists opportunity to tattle on their unschooled and presumably unwashed competitors to the Illinois Department of Financial and Professional Regulation.  

If Illinois had set out to eliminate minority- and woman-owned businesses while reducing the number of community gathering spots, it couldn't have done better work. The new costs created an uneven playing field. Those who did comply saw that extravagant schooling and licensing costs made turning a profit nearly impossible. Many shops closed, eliminating formerly vibrant neighborhood social centers. As an added bonus, the state exposed its weak enforcement power: Braiders still operating illegally became so inured to cease-and-desist letters they trashed them on receipt.

Thanks to a decade of this dysfunctional state of affairs, even the bill's sponsor, Rep. Will Burns (D-Chicago), acknowledges this won't make much difference:

"There's a vibrant underground economy right now of hair braiders. And I don't think that's going to change with the law."

States that expect to fill coffers by charging for the right to practice a learned craft are delusional: "Laws like this are a step in the right direction, but don't go far enough" says Paul Sherman of the Institute for Justice. He points to Florida's 1994 reform of its once onerous licensing regime as an example for other states to follow if they fear the spectre of "untrained" braiders: a $25 fee and a 2-day, 16-hour course in sanitation practices.

Here's an Institute for Justice video on licensing cartels: