Occupational Licensing

Licensing Reform Opponents Say Unlicensed Barbers Would Be as Dangerous as Unlicensed Chefs. Chefs Aren't Licensed.

Texas barbers and cosmetologists turn to fearmongering.


John Margolies/LOC/Cover Images/Newscom

Barbers and cosmetologists in Texas warn that repealing mandatory licenses for their professions would be as dangerous as having unlicensed chefs preparing your meals.

Chefs are not, in fact, subject to government licensing.

"Would you just sit down and just let anyone cut your hair? Or, would you allow your daughters, or your wife go out and just have anybody do their hair? I don't think so," hairdresser Lyn Doan tells News 6. "Are you just going to let anybody cook your food, and eat it, and not know if the kitchen is clean or not? I mean this is ridiculous, I've never heard of such a thing."

It certainly is ridiculous, but not in the way Doan means. Indeed, her argument captures both the absurdity of claiming that barber licenses are necessary to protect public health and the sheer desperation of licensed barbers and cosmetologists to maintain their protectionist regime. As in other places, Texas barbers and cosmetologists are stoking unfounded fears because there really isn't a good, practical argument for forcing cosmetologists to have 1,500 hours of training—as is currently required in Texas, where emergency medical technicians are required to have only 120 hours of training.

But the comparison to chefs is a good one—though again, not in the way that Doan means. That's a profession where there is an obvious interest in protecting public health, but that goal is accomplished through a combination of government regulations and market mechanisms that do not include one-size-fits-all licensing laws.

When you go to a restaurant—whether it's a McDonald's or the most expensive steakhouse in Texas—the lack of licensing laws for chefs doesn't mean that you're "going to let anybody cook your food," as Doan puts it. You're trusting that, first and foremost, the restaurant has a strong incentive not to employ chefs who are bad at their jobs or a danger to your health. At higher-caliber establishments, you're also assuming that the chefs have completed higher levels of training and have achieved certain professional certification. (Some places may even advertise as much as a way to get you in the door.) And, of course, the government plays a background role by inspecting the facilities for cleanliness.

In other words, there's a market for chefs that sorts them based on their skills, experience, and technique. Removing licensing for barbers and cosmetologists would likely produce a similar arrangement. People who want to cut hair and can show they know the basics of how to do it could work at the hair-styling equivalent of a fast food joint, while those with more training and better skills would be in demand at upscale salons and could demand higher pay. Private certifications could replace licensing as a way for workers to signal their skills to prospective employers and clients, and the government could reduce its role to inspections that regulate the physical space where barbering takes place.

To really understand how ridiculous the barber and cosmetology licensing regimes are, flip the whole analogy on its head. Applying the same regulatory process to chefs would create a world where flipping burgers would require a degree from a restaurant school. It's possible, I suppose, that forcing all chefs to have that high level of training might have minuscule benefits to public health. But it would make it much more difficult to find a job in the food service industry—and consumers would probably have to pay $25 for a Happy Meal.

Abolishing barber and cosmetology licensing won't cause a scourge of public health problems, but it would provide greater economic opportunities.

"Cosmetology is a field in which the consumer can be trusted to seek out the best service provider without any serious risk of harm. There are several vocations in Texas that pertain to aspects of public safety like car mechanics, personal trainers, and electrologists that are not required by the state to be licensed," state Rep. Matt Shaheen (R–Plano), who is sponsoring the licensing reform bill, tells News 6. "Texans that are willing to join the workforce and compete—especially low income Texans looking to improve their lives—should face the fewest obstacles possible, and by requiring a cosmetology license, we're creating unnecessary obstacles for those who want to earn a living."

He's right. Requiring one-size-fits all licensing for Texan barbers and cosmetologists makes as much sense as requiring that the guy making your burrito at Chipotle has as much training as a line cook at an establishment with a Michelin star.