op-ed

Licensing gone wild: armed government agents raiding barber shops

Paul Sherman Staff Attorney, Institute for Justice

Under Florida law, before you’re allowed to cut hair, you must first take 1,200 hours of instruction that can cost thousands of dollars and pass a written exam. The economic effects of laws like this are well documented — by restricting entry into the market, these laws force consumers to pay more for fewer options. But recent events in the Central Florida neighborhood of Pine Hills point out another danger of occupational licensing.

The Orlando Sentinel reports that police in Pine Hills have been conducting warrantless raids of barbershops and arresting barbers for cutting hair without a license. As a result, barbers with years of experience and plenty of satisfied customers are being subject to hundreds of dollars in fines, simply because they cut hair without first getting permission from the government.

The Sentinel story makes clear that these raids are a transparent attempt to search barbershops for drugs without having to first get a search warrant. Because these searches were ostensibly conducted under the direction of Florida’s Department of Business and Professional Regulations, which regulates barbers, police are able to barge into these barbershops, handcuff the occupants and search for drugs — no search warrant required.

What this illustrates is that occupational licensing is more than just bad economic policy — when we lose a right as basic as the right to work in common occupations without first asking government permission, the loss of other civil liberties soon follows. And this problem isn’t confined to Florida.

The Institute for Justice recently released a series of city studies examining barriers to entrepreneurship in eight major metropolitan areas, including Miami, Fla. These studies document the explosion of occupational-licensing laws over the last 50 years. In the 1950s only one in twenty Americans needed a government license to work in their chosen occupation. Today, that number is almost one in three.

Most of these laws are totally unnecessary. Any interest the state might have in protecting public health and safety could be easily met by requiring would-be barbers to learn basic sanitation procedures and carry a modest amount of insurance. Those who want to prevent a repeat of the Pine Hills raids should take a hard look at deregulating safe, common occupations like barbering and cosmetology.

Paul Sherman is a staff attorney with the Institute for Justice.