September 27, 2005
By Trent Engl and Claire Wendt
Many states require about 1,700 hours
of training to become a licensed paramedic, six weeks of training
to be a firefighter, and 10 weeks of training to become a police
officer. So a job requiring 3,200 hours of training must be even
more complicated or dangerous, right?
Actually, that's what some states require to become a licensed
hair braider. And that's just one example of the many ridiculous
obstacles faced every day by American entrepreneurs. Worst of all,
accidentally violating such regulations can turn well-meaning
small-business owners into criminals.
Legislators may believe they are protecting their constituents when
they write these laws, but often, they do so only after being
prodded by special-interest groups intent on stifling competition
from startup businesses. Many business licensing laws, in practice,
do nothing to protect consumers and actually raise prices and
reduce quality. And in most states, failing to navigate the
licensing bureaucracy is a criminal offense. Business owners who
don't comply, even accidentally, can be bankrupted with fines or
even thrown in jail.
In Utah, the Pleasant Grove City Police arrested eight people for
"soliciting without a license." Soliciting what? Drugs?
Prostitution? No. They were soliciting for customers to buy vacuum
cleaners. Police rounded up the otherwise law-abiding door-to-door
salesmen for violating a city code requiring them to provide
fingerprints and post a $1,000 bond. All that just to sell vacuums.
They sued the city, arguing that the licensing regime violates
their rights to freedom of speech and to earn a living.
In July, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Tenth Circuit agreed
with the salesmen. The city claimed that the law was not about
harassing and discouraging businesspeople, but was intended only to
prevent fraud and burglaries. During a hearing, however, a Pleasant
Grove City police captain admitted that the fingerprints required
for a license never had been used -- not to prosecute a crime or
for anything else. In reality, the fingerprinting and expensive
bond were just ways to interfere with a legitimate business by
creating time-consuming and complicated procedures with criminal
penalties for intentional or even accidental non-compliance.
Is it really a good idea to use scarce criminal-justice resources
to go after well-meaning and productive citizens? Small-business
entrepreneurs certainly don't think so, and some of them are
For many urban women, particularly immigrants from Africa and the
Caribbean, hair braiding is a great way to earn a living. It
requires almost no initial investment, can pay a relatively high
hourly wage and allows a flexible schedule. As is often the case,
some established businesses are less than enthusiastic about the
upstart competition. In fact, established full-service salons have
pressured some state regulators to go after hair braiders for
failing to secure a cosmetology license -- despite the fact that
hair braiders don't use chemicals, razors or any of the other
potentially hazardous tools used in a regular salon.
In Mississippi, the law required 3,200 hours of coursework just to
apply for a license. Any violation was considered a crime. Hair
braiders challenged the law in court in 2004 and won, requiring the
law to be rewritten with more freedom and less economic
protectionism. California law required at least nine months of
full-time study at a cosmetology school, which could cost more than
$5,000. A court in California found that the licensing requirement
was irrational as applied to hair braiding and struck it
The Louisiana legislature has taken silly and abusive regulations
even further. Want to open a flower shop in the Bayou State? First
you'll need a state-issued florist license. And to get the license,
you must pass the state florist test, which just happens to be
graded by established florists. It is no surprise that the exam is
totally subjective and the pass rate is lower than the Louisiana
state bar exam.
The justification for economic regulation is always the "public
good," but in many cases it is clear that lawmakers are simply
protecting established businesses from competition. No one should
be branded a criminal for practicing floristry without a license.
Salesmen should not be treated like felons in the course of trying
to earn an honest living for their families. Women who want to
braid hair for a living deserve the freedom to do so without being
crushed by senseless regulation. Instead, governments should
celebrate the distinctly American entrepreneurial spirit and
encourage the creation of new businesses.
There certainly are occupations that call for high training
standards and regulatory oversight, although criminal law never
should be used for accidental violations. But hair braiders and
vacuum cleaner salesmen are not paramedics or pilots. When it comes
to everyday Americans trying to do everyday jobs -- like, say,
floristry -- government should "let 1,000 flowers bloom."
Trent England is a legal policy analyst at The Heritage
Foundation. Claire Wendt is a law student at Pepperdine University
and was the H.N. and Frances C. Berger Foundation intern at
Distributed nationally on the Knight-Ridder Tribune Wire
Many states require about 1,700 hours of training to become a licensed paramedic, six weeks of training to be a firefighter, and 10 weeks of training to become a police officer.
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