Benta Diaw immigrated to the United States from Senegal. She decided to open a business braiding hair as she was taught by her grandmother in Africa. However, the state of Washington declared her business illegal. Was Diaw misleading her clients and using dangerous chemicals on their hair? Was she engaging in some other form of fraud? No, Diaw was breaking the law because she had not obtained a license from the government to practice her craft. And the state of Washington is not unusual:

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.

This absurdity is but one example of the outrageous standards often established by occupational licensing.

Today, more than twenty percent of the nation’s workforce must obtain government permission to engage in the occupation of their choice. Consider some of the occupations that require a state license:

  • A turtle farmer in Lousiana
  • An upholsterer in California and Utah
  • A prospector in Maine
  • A manure applicator in Iowa

Why do such professions require a state license? Are manure applicators in Iowa somehow threatening the rights of the state’s citizens? And what about legislators, who certainly spread their fair share of manure?

While occupational licensing laws are usually “justified” on the grounds that they protect consumers from incompetent practitioners, consumers seldom call for a particular occupation to be licensed. In virtually every instance, existing practitioners are the driving force behind government licensing of occupations. And the reason is a basic law of economics: supply and demand.

By establishing certain standards for entering a profession, the supply of that profession is reduced. For example, if a hair braider must spend 1,000 hours taking courses, many would-be hair braiders will simply abandon their goal. Rather than waste time and money taking courses that have nothing to do with their profession, they will enter some occupation that is not restricted by arbitrary standards.

For those who have jumped through the necessary hoops, reduced competition means a higher income. And a higher income–not protecting consumers–is the primary motivation for those advocating occupational licensing.

For consumers, the alleged beneficiaries of occupational licensing, the results are fewer choices and higher prices. Somebody has to pay for the higher incomes that result from occupational licensing.

Benta Diaw presumably came to America to make a better life for herself and pursue her own personal happiness. But rather than succeed or fail solely on the basis of her own talent and ambition, she must instead overcome arbitrary barriers erected by government. Rather than protect Diaw’s moral right to act on her own judgment, the government becomes a violator of that right when it mandates occupational licensing.

Diaw’s story has a happy ending–the state repealed the requirement that she obtain a license to braid hair. But millions of Americans remain shackled by similar restrictions, even while politicians of every stripe are talking about creating jobs.  Occupational licensing is destroying jobs and much more. Those who are serious about creating jobs, and individual freedom, must call for the repeal of all occupational licensing laws.

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Brian Phillips has been actively defending individual rights for the past twenty-five years. He has successfully helped defeat attempts to implement zoning in Houston, Texas, and Hobbs, New Mexico. His writing has appeared in The Freeman, Reason, The Orange County Register, The Houston Chronicle, The Objective Standard, Capitalism Magazine, and dozens of other publications. He is the author of Individual Rights and Government Wrongs

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