In the United States (and in many other countries!), there are several professions in which it is illegal to practice without a license. While most states typically handle these schemes, even Congress was afforded the power in Article I, Section 8, under the Commerce Clause, making such schemes even potentially federal.

For obvious reasons, you want quality control in regards to your doctors and lawyers. I can sort of even see the justification for funeral homes - having needed to use two in the last six months, no matter how prepared you are, you are using them in a time of acute need, and there is a case to be made that you want regulation to ensure you are not taken advantage of.

And, most professions have a vested interest in restricting the pool of potential purveyors, in order to bid up prices for the remainder. Indeed, lawyers in particular have sought to "raise the bar" in order to deal with a glut. And again, doctors are paid more when there are fewer of them. But for any one industry with an incentive to restrict professional practice, there is typically a wider electorate that presumably doesn't have the incentive to see prices rise. And, in a democratic system, one would assume that cartel power would, in the long run, be voted out. After all, self-interest amongst consumers (and their sheer numbers) should serve as a check.

But here again, there seems an obvious anomoly. A barber or a haridresser is a licensed profession in many states and countries. The work is not particularly skilled (one can earn a degree in less than a year), nor is the industry particularly prone to horrendous side effect in the event of a bad apple. (Any hairstyle by Lady Gaga, Cher, or Hillary Clinton notwithstanding.)

Why then, do these licensures remain? What is the incentive for the average person to support an artificial monopoly amongst an otherwise low skilled profession? Why not require janitors and sanitation engineers to be equally licensed?


Since comments are being deleted, I'll try and create an answer. However, the actual question:

What is the incentive for the average person to support an artificial monopoly amongst an otherwise low skilled profession?

Is a leading question. It's assuming that the the primary purpose of licensure is to create an artificial monopoly. It's also assuming that licensure is only useful for high skilled professions. I don't see either as being necessarily true.

In general, however, licensure is a way to finance a regulatory and inspection system. Typically this is done in the name of public health and safety. Hairdressers do more than cut hair...they also apply potentially dangerous chemicals, shave faces, physically touch numerous people on a daily basis (potential for spread of communicable ailments such as lice) etc. So I think there's a case for a public safety argument.

Why not require janitors and sanitation engineers to be equally licensed?

I could see a public safety argument for custodial work, but that would be a much harder one to make, given they are in less direct contact with the public. As for sanitation workers, same thing, though it's important to point out the sanitation industry is heavily regulated as a whole, again in the name of public safety.


Per DVK's suggestion, I did a quick search to find some supporting data to back up the statement that licensing is a way to fund the actual department handling the inspections. Alas, most .gov sites are pretty bad, but Colorado's is decent and here's info on their funding:

The Department of Regulatory Agencies (DORA) is primarily cash funded by regulated entities through fees and assessments flowing to cash funds, and DORA is relatively unique among state agencies with regard to the volume, complexity, and autonomy with which it sets industry fees based on appropriations made by the General Assembly

source: http://www.colorado.gov/cs/Satellite?c=Page&childpagename=DORA%2FDORALayout&cid=1251627011148&p=1251627011148&pagename=CBONWrapper

As for purpose of the agency, Colorado's licensing department has this as their mission statement:

DORA is dedicated to preserving the integrity of the marketplace and is committed to promoting a fair and competitive business enivronment to Colorado. Consumer protection is our mission.

source: http://www.colorado.gov/cs/Satellite/DORA/CBON/DORA/1249686120221

So not explicitly 'for the public health' but consumer protection. Interestingly, counter to the original question's assumption, they explicitly state additional objectives that one would argue seem to be specifically promoting commerce (rather than creating an industry monopoly).

Other states seem to take the 'public health' route with their mission statement. From Kentucky:

The Kentucky State Board of Hairdressers & Cosmetologists was created to protect the health and safety of the general public, to protect the public against misrepresentation, deceit, or fraud in the practice or teaching of beauty culture, to set standards for the operation of the schools and salons, and to protect the students under the provisions of this chapters.

source: http://www.kbhc.ky.gov/boardinfo/

  • "So I think there's a case for a public safety argument" - but IS there an actual " regulatory and inspection system" for haircutters which is in fact financed from said license fees?
    – user4012
    Mar 22 '13 at 20:47
  • @dvk I don't know the details across all jurisdictions in the US, but I do know that in the couple of cities I've lived in, yes, the the barbers and hairdressers were subject to routine inspections just as restaurants are.
    – user1530
    Mar 22 '13 at 20:50
  • you should post details of whether they are funded from the licensing (if you imply that this is the main reason for licensing to exist)
    – user4012
    Mar 22 '13 at 22:11
  • I would have to spend time some time hunting down the specifics (which I honestly probably won't get to), but in general that is the intent of user fees. DNR fees go towards DNR management, building permitting fees go to permitting and inspections, etc.
    – user1530
    Mar 23 '13 at 0:59
  • 2
    +1. In a general sense, I can see that this is an interesting question, but in this specific case, this is more about ignorance of what cosmetologists do. Disclaimer: my wife has just acquired her Cosmetology license in WA state. Your point about chemicals, skin diseases, etc. is right on. They study tons about medicine, anatomy, and chemical safety. 1600 hours in school for my wife's program, and written and practical exams lasting several hours. I know to most "dudes", it's just a haircut, but there's a lot more to it than that.
    – Nate
    Aug 2 '13 at 23:31

"For obvious reasons, you want quality control in regards to your doctors and lawyers."

Once you admit that the state is the means to exercise this control, you admit the validity of the same argument for hairdressers. Bad haircut is, well, bad, so what's wrong with wanting quality control? Maybe for you hairdressing means little, but for somebody bad haircut could change their whole life (e.g. job interview or date gone wrong, bad consequences ensue). As long as you accept the state has to exercise quality control, why hairdressers be exempt? It may be a low priority for you, but put that to a vote and see if it's equally low priority for everybody. If they vote for quality control - then they think quality control needs to be there.

Why not require janitors and sanitation engineers to be equally licensed?

The same applies to janitors, it is only a question of having the right lobby and the right public campaign. If in a particular jurisdiction janitors form a union and conduct successful campaign to require licensing - there's absolutely no reason (provided you accepted the initial premises) why janitors won't be licensed.

  • 1
    -1. Totally misses the point that "hairdressers" do more than style your hair. They're trained in the use of chemicals, skin and hair disease, anatomy, not to mention the use of extremely sharp tools designed to be used in close proximity to your dome. It's not about getting a haircut that looks bad.
    – Nate
    Sep 21 '13 at 8:23
  • 2
    @Nate I've never needed my hairdresser to deal with skin diseases or know my anatomy (beyond the fact that the hair they're interested in usually grows on the top of one's head) and all those stuff you mentioned. I'm pretty sure every hairdresser I ever used doesn't know much about that and I'm completely fine with it. Their job is to cut my hair, as as long as they can do it properly without cutting off my ears, that's fine with me.
    – StasM
    Sep 22 '13 at 3:38
  • @StasM Why even get your hair cut, then? Just do it yourself.
    – JAB
    Jan 24 '17 at 2:11
  • @StasM most barbers and hairdressers offer shaving as one of their services, though, even if you've never been shaved by one. You may never have needed your hairdresser to deal with skin diseases, but your needs alone do not dictate licensing requirements. And aren't you glad that your properly-trained licensed hairdresser did not infect you with the disease the previous customer was suffering from?
    – phoog
    Jan 24 '17 at 3:56
  • @JAB you can't be asking this seriously. It makes no sense. I don't cut my hair because it's hard and inconvenient and I don't know how to do it well. The same reason I don't make my own shoes and don't assemble cars I'm driving. This has nothing to do with requiring license.
    – StasM
    Jan 24 '17 at 6:50

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