Joe Biden

Joe Biden Is Right: Occupational Licensing Laws for Hairdressers Are 'Not Helping Workers'

If anything, he's understating how ridiculous they are.


Now here's a way Joe Biden can put his interest in other peoples' hair to better use:

The setting was a speech this morning, where Biden talked about ways that working-class Americans often get "the shaft." Occupational licensing was one of his examples, and it was a good one. Rather than helping workers—or consumers—such laws often serve as an artificially, arbitrary barrier to gainful employment.

In fact, Biden is actually underselling how difficult it can be to become a hair stylist. In most states, legally working in such a job requires you to become a full-fledged cosmetologist, and getting a cosmetology license often requires years of expensive schooling. According to the Institute for Justice's 2017 report on state licensing laws, there is not a single state where someone can qualify for a cosmetology license with a mere 400 hours of training. In New York, the state with the lowest training requirements, a would-be stylist still needs 1,000 hours of classes before getting a job.

In other places, the requirements get even more absurd. Arizona has a specific license for blow-dry specialists—that is, someone who only blow dries and styles hair without cutting or applying any chemicals or dyes—and it takes 1,000 hours of training to earn it.

There is little doubt that occupational licensing laws limit employment opportunities, particularly for working-class Americans who might be able to earn a living as, say, barbers if they didn't have to first spend thousands of dollars learning something they already know how to do. And if you get caught trying to earn a living without a government-issued permission slip—like Elias Zarate, a Tennessee man who was denied a license because he did not graduate from high school, as if that has anything to do with being a good barber—you'll face thousands of dollars in fines.

During Biden's time as vice president, the Council of Economic Advisers issued a landmark report on the economic consequences of licensing laws. The conclusions? Licensing results in "significantly higher prices" for consumers while benefiting politically connected special interests (in this case, license holders) and creating an environment where many jobs "are only accessible to those with the time and means to complete what are often lengthy" licensing requirements. Immigrants, individuals with criminal records, and anyone with student loans in default face a particularly difficult path to getting licensed, thanks to arbitrary restrictions.

So Biden is absolutely right to conclude that occupational licensing laws are giving working-class Americans the shaft. That's a message that could set him apart from some other presidential candidates in the Democratic field for 2020. (Biden has not declared his candidacy yet, but by all appearances he is preparing to run.)

As Reason's Christian Britschgi pointed out yesterday, Biden has had a hand in crafting "some of the worst tough-on-crime policies around, including civil asset forfeiture, mandatory minimum sentencing, and an expanded federal death penalty." Today he demonstrated that there's another side to that coin, and he deserves praise for singling out hairdressing licensing laws for criticism. Given his history of rubbing people's shoulders, maybe he could get on board with rolling back massage therapist licensing too.