Thanks to readers of Reason, Federal Communications Commission Chairman Ajit Pai, and other random strangers who had never met him, Elias Zarate was able to pay off a $1,500 fine (plus another $600 in fees) imposed by Tennessee's haircut cops.
What crime warranted such a stiff penalty? Zarate cut hair without a license—that's a violation of Tennessee Cosmetology Act code 62-4-108, which requires all licensed barbers to have a high school diploma. What's finishing high school got to do with being a good barber, you may ask? Well, nothing, but Tennessee is one of 13 states to require completion of high school as a prerequisite to getting a barber license
As Reason reported in January, Zarate dropped out of high school midway through the 12th grade to help raise his two younger siblings—their mother had died in a car accident and their father abandoned the kids to tenuous living arrangements with relatives—and ultimately got a job working as a barber in Memphis. Zarate loved the work and there's no indication that anyone complained to the state board about his skills with a razor and scissors. After getting busted, Zarate approached the Tennessee Board of Cosmetology and Barber Examiners, hoping for some help with getting a legitimate license. They slapped him with a fine and told him he'd have to go back to high school before he could work again.
"I was thinking, how am I supposed to pay for this fine, you know, because they're stopping me from working," Zarate told Reason.
And that's where this story goes from being yet another reminder about the arbitrary awfulness of occupational licensing laws to something that might just restore your faith in humanity.
With the help of licensing reformers at the Beacon Center of Tennessee, a free market think tank, Zarate set up a GoFundMe account to help pay off his fine. After our story about his situation—and a clutch tweet from Pai—the page was flooded with donations.
"You can restart the heart of a pulseless, unbreathing person without a high school diploma, but you cannot cut hair." @EricBoehm87 in @reason on a case of occupational licensing and economic opportunity in Tennessee. @BeaconTN H/T @senatorshoshanahttps://t.co/iG8m8Rwu8C
— Ajit Pai (@AjitPaiFCC) January 20, 2018
Zarate ended up raising more than $3,200, with most of it coming in the form of small donations from people who likely have never met him and never will. Take a minute to read through some of the comments on the page and bask in the collective middle finger being raised to the Tennessee Board of Cosmetology and Barber Examiners.
"I just want to thank everybody who donated, it means so much to me," says Zarate in a video posted by the Beacon Center. "I just want to be able to get into barber school and make everything right with the state and provide for my family."
But now that Zarate has paid off his fines—he did so on Friday of last week—he's still no closer to having a career as a barber. Righting that wrong will require action from the state legislature.
After Zarate's story became public, Gov. Bill Haslam called for a bill to reduce the educational requirements for a barbering license. Legislation introduced in the state House and state Senate would require the completion of 10th grade—the same standard that applies to cosmetology licenses in Tennessee—before an applicant could get a barber license, rather than requiring the completion of high school.
It's not clear why there should be any educational requirement attached to a barber license. Cutting hair well does not require knowledge of trigonometry or a careful study of the meaning of The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. Proper sanitation for the equipment used by licensed barbers—the only thing that could remotely be considered a reason for government to intervene—could be, and indeed is, taught during the mandatory training that all barber licensing applicants must complete in Tennessee. It is not taught in Tennessee high schools.
The closer you look, the less sense it makes. You can become a licensed emergency medical responder in Tennessee without a high school diploma—indeed, you can do it with far less work than is required to become a barber. Getting an EMR license in Tennessee requires only that an applicant can "read, write, and speak the English language," according to Tennessee Department of Health guidelines.
Zarate is hardly alone when it comes to facing the wrath of the Tennessee Board of Cosmetology and Barber Examiners. The Institute for Justice, a libertarian law firm, examined meeting minutes and disciplinary actions for the board and found that it had levied $100,000 in fines against dozens of braiders in 30 different hair shops and salons since 2009. "All of those violations," wrote Nick Sibilla in Forbes, "were for unlicensed braiding; none were triggered by any health or sanitation violation."
Individuals pitching in to help a guy like Zarate is a heart-warming story; but the reality is that state boards can issue more fines than could ever be paid off in such a fashion. Eliminating unnecessary licensing laws that have nothing to do with public health and safety is the only way to ensure that barbers, hair braiders, and cosmetologists in Tennessee and elsewhere have the freedom to pursue their careers without fear of the haircut cops.