Tuesday, March 25, 2008

Licensing as cartels

From Radley Balko at Fox News (yeah, I know), the most succinct article I've ever seen on the anti-competitive practice of professional licensing. The artificial scarcity of taxi cabs in large cities is pretty well known, but Balko shows that this practice is creeping into other professions: interior designers in many states, florists in Louisiana, basic equine dentistry in Texas, and hair dressers and beauty salons in many states. And on top of all that, the article points out that the exams necessary for earning a license are evaluated by already-licensed professionals, who obviously have an incentive to lessen their competition. This paper from the Reason Foundation gives a detailed look at licensing laws across the US, along with some absurd anecdotes about the hoops that people have to jump through to do what they already know how to do.

Licensing becomes particularly Kafka-esque when it comes to African hair braiding: a very time-consuming and expensive way of styling hair. Drive down any commercially-zoned street (and some that aren't) in any city with a large black population and you'll see that these salons are integrals parts of these economies. And yet, according to the Institute for Justice, the process for becoming licensed can be very time-consuming and difficult:
In all but a handful of states, performing African hairbraiding professionally without a government-issued license is against the law. And earning the license requires braiders to take more than 1,000 hours of coursework that cover techniques completely unrelated and even antithetical to the type of natural hair care braiders provide.

The State of Washington’s regulations are typical of many states, requiring even skilled braiders to take up to 1,600 hours of completely unrelated classes to get a cosmetology or barbering license to braid legally. In Mississippi, braiders can get a cosmetology license with a 1,500-hour class, or a “wigology” license with 300 hours of classes in wig care, but only two of the state’s more than 40 cosmetology schools offer wigology. That leaves most aspiring braiders in the state with only three options: attend an expensive, 1,500-hour cosmetology program that doesn’t teach braiding, abandon their profession or operate outside the law.

Recognizing this problem, Melony Armstrong, who earned her wigology license, decided to open a wigology school to teach her craft to others. But the State doesn’t allow wigology-only schools. Instead, Melony must open a cosmetology school—even if she only wants to teach braiding and wigology—which means spending more than 3,000 hours (about three academic years) in cosmetology and cosmetology instructor programs. Of course, those programs don’t teach braiding.

Consider that in the 3,200 classroom hours it would take for Armstrong to get a license to teach hairbraiding, she could instead become licensed in all of the following professions: emergency medical technician (122 hours plus five emergency runs), paramedic (1,700 hours), ambulance driver (8 hours), law enforcement officer (ten weeks), firefighter (six weeks), real estate appraiser (75 hours) and hunting education instructor (20 hours). And all of that would take more than 600 hours less than getting her license to teach braiding.

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