A Cut Below: Lessons from the History of Barber Licensure
As someone who disdains unnecessary government regulation and also desperately needs a haircut, I conveniently stumbled upon Daniel Smith’s “The Itch & Razor War”. His working paper recounts the origins of occupational licensing for barbers in the United States. Smith shows that occupational licensing is often promoted as a safety measure but quickly becomes a formidable barrier to entry supported by those already in the profession.
In the Progressive Era of the United States (the late 1890s to the late 1910s), an increasing number of “barber’s itch” (a contagious skin infection spread by using unclean razors) outbreaks led to the creation of barber licensures to ensure the implementation of sanitation efforts to prevent the spread of this ailment. One health column from that time noted that “90 percent of the justification for licensure was Barber’s Itch.”
It didn’t take long for the justification for regulation to evolve as motivations became increasingly self-interested. Unionized barbers began advocating for regulations in order to bar discount barbers from driving down prices. Lobbying included restricting barbers from working on Sunday (which affected discount barbers who worked part-time on the weekends), not allowing some barbers to offer free shoeshines with their haircut, and unique to Missouri, requiring “conversational ability.”
Most of us enjoy a barber who can carry on a conversation, but is this something that needs to be regulated by the state? It seems silly, but we still see the remnants of this type of requirement today where barbers in training have to spend 10 hours on “professional image” and another 10 hours of training on “salesmanship and shop management.”
Though public safety and “barber’s itch” were the impetus for licensing barbers, today only 5.5 percent of the required 2,000 hours for the Missouri barber’s apprenticeship relate to sanitation and sterilization procedures.
The fact is licensing creates an incentive for incumbents in an industry to use these licenses to drive down the number of competitors. This is often known as regulatory capture.
Smith’s analysis found that occupational licensing led to a 45% increase in haircut prices and a 55% increase in shaving prices, but there was no evidence that barber’s itch declined. This aligns with a Florida State meta-analysis, which observes that only 16 percent of occupational licensing studies show a positive relationship between product quality and licensing.
Today we rarely worry about barber’s itch, yet we require even more laborious licensing requirements. Policymakers should review these requirements for all professions to ensure the licensure process is providing a legitimate, beneficial service and not just helping pad the wallets of those already in the profession.