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OPINION | TANNER CORLEY: Hairy regulations

Combing over barber licensing by TANNER CORLEY SPECIAL TO THE DEMOCRAT-GAZETTE | December 11, 2020 at 3:09 a.m.

P atrick Mahomes' impressive 2020 Super Bowl performance stole the spotlight, but what did not make news was how he facilitated a crime before the game.

According to Bob McClure on Floridapolitics.com, Mahomes flew in his barber from Missouri to cut his and his teammates' hair before the game. As McClure notes, these haircuts may seem harmless, but a Florida statute prohibits barbers not licensed in the state of Florida from cutting hair. This crime is punishable by up to 60 days in jail.

This particular statute may seem draconian, but every state has its own barber license laws with similar consequences and penalties. Occupational licensing laws such as these are increasing in number, including here in Arkansas. This issue deserves scrutiny because, according to the Institute for Justice, Arkansas has one of the most burdensome licensing laws in the U.S.

Historian Dr. Marcus Witcher and I researched the history of the Arkansas Barber Law while working at the Arkansas Center for Research in Economics (ACRE). Our research concluded that established barbers pushed the Arkansas General Assembly to adopt a barber license law with the hope of creating barriers to competition. Barbers in Arkansas did not explicitly ask the General Assembly to introduce a bill to increase their wages at the expense of others. Instead, they used public health as a justification for handing over control and regulation of the barber profession to the barbers themselves.

To help get the 1937 Arkansas Barber law passed, Arkansas' local Journeyman Barber Union argued that licensing laws were needed to combat unsanitary barber shops and to protect the public. In the International Journeyman Barber Journal, President James Shanessy urged the union to "crystallize public sentiment in favor of the Barber's License Law" by allowing the delegates to bring the matter before the trades councils and "show them it is a health measure."

The barber bill passed with a vote of 52 to 37 on the grounds that it was needed to protect the public from unsanitary barbershops, as well as from the disease-ridden barbers coming from other states. Rep. Rupert Condrey, an advocate for the 1937 law, argued that Arkansas had become "the dumping ground for all barbers in the middle west who because they are suffering from disease that would prevent their practicing the trade in other states."

The barber license law did contain various health and safety provisions. It also required that any barber not having practiced for at least six months in Arkansas obtain 1,000 hours in training, pass an examination, and pay fees. Those already practicing for at least six months were grandfathered in.

It's important to note that the barber industry was already regulated before the 1937 legislation was passed. In 1933, the state Board of Health passed codes of sanitation regulations for barbershops that were identical to the regulations in the 1937 bill. Had the barbers in Arkansas been solely interested in public health, they would have been satisfied by the 1933 legislation. The General Assembly was seemingly moved to create the regulations and hand over the regulatory apparatus to the barbers themselves despite the fact that we can find no evidence in newspapers from the time to suggest that there was a public health crisis.

When the barbers used licensing laws to seek better wages and less competition, they were effectively denying some people the opportunity to make a living. This is how licensing laws work. Once implemented, it outlaws all unlicensed workers from practicing their trade.

A bill was filed last year to abolish the Arkansas Barber Law. It did not get support and was withdrawn. The same arguments were made last year as they were in 1937: that we need the licensing to protect our health.

We can protect our health with other measures, such as sanitation checks. We don't need oppressive licensing laws. Patrick Mahomes should be able to take his barber with him.

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Tanner Corley is an ACRE undergraduate research fellow at the University of Central Arkansas. His views do not represent those of UCA.

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