State 'Barberism'

As readers of this site know all too well, government intrusions into our lives occur incalculable times over the course of a day. The state’s slimy tentacles creep unceasingly into every corner of our lives, coating all they touch with a patina of inefficiency, fraud and waste. What follows is but one small example.

In my home state of Pennsylvania, the folks who cut your hair – barbers – must be licensed, and my guess is that every other state has the same requirement. In the old days, barbers performed more functions than they do now, including “surgery of wounds, blood-letting, cupping and leeching, enemas, and the extraction of teeth.”

However, I seriously doubt that these functions were being performed in 1931, when the Keystone State’s barber law went into effect, so one wonders what motivated the beneficent masters of the day to enact it. The version available online, amended in 1984, defines “barbering” as what we know now – hair trimming and beard shaving, along with services like eyebrow-shaping and facial massaging. Curiously, no rationale for the law appears in its imperious text, other than “to promote the public health and safety.” Since, by 1984, barbers no longer performed surgery and the like, it forces one to ask exactly what the state means by “health and safety.”

The mission statement of the State Board of Barber Examiners website goes a bit further than the law: “Through its agents, the Board inspects, approves and registers all barber shops and schools of barbering and prescribes the sanitary requirements for the individual establishment. By performing these functions, the Board protects the public from gross incompetence, unethical or dishonest practice or conduct, and the spread of contagious and infectious diseases.” So now we know Pennsylvania’s definition of “health and safety.” I’m sure I’ll sleep better tonight.

Apparently the state is afraid modern barbers might still accidentally lop off an ear now and then. I suppose this is possible, so some training may indeed be desirable in order to prevent such accidents. More plausibly, since barbers use the same combs, razors and other equipment over and over again, the state is concerned that certain diseases, as well as head lice, could be spread if some care is not taken. (Other than a bad haircut, this would appear to be the extent of the damage a barber could do.) So, it might indeed be prudent for a budding barber to get some training before hanging out his shingle. But how long might this reasonably take? In the case of “safety” training – which arguably might be of “legitimate” interest to the nanny state – perhaps a few days to a week? And the “skills” training – I haven’t a clue – perhaps a month or two?

Not in Pennsylvania. Before taking the licensing exam, an applicant must complete a barbering study and training period of 1250 hours (i.e., over seven months at 40 hours per week) including at least nine months under the tutelage of a licensed “barber-teacher” in a barber school or shop! To emphasize the absurdity of this, it is 15-20 times longer than it takes to be approved to pilot a small plane!

If the purpose of the law (not that it’s the state’s business) were to ensure that barbers are supremely competent, become world-renowned masters of their craft, perhaps this length of time would make sense. But that is not the avowed purpose of the law, which is simply “to promote the public health and safety.”

Obviously it can’t possibly take nine months to become a competent barber, and if the state had altruistic motives, wouldn’t it simply print up a pamphlet outlining the potential dangers, and hand them out to anyone who asked? Some might argue that it would be a good idea (and not too egregious an intrusion) to have barbers sign an affidavit swearing they read the pamphlet – perhaps mailing it to the state capitol or simply posting it in their shops. Since this is not what the state has enacted, what might be its true motives?

One purpose might be simply to expand its power. If the state can intrude into the lives of its citizens in relatively small ways, it can continue to expand in this fashion and intrude in ever-increasing ways. It’s like a leech that gains a toehold, then sucks enough blood out of its host to fatten up and reproduce; soon its rasping teeth are attached to all ten toes, and then the next litter of bloodsuckers hatches and moves onward and upward.

A second motive might have been to create a protective guild for the benefit of lobbying barbers in 1931. The more stringent its licensing requirements, the fewer number of members in the guild – and the higher the fees its cohorts could charge. If everyone were free to cut hair, competition would exert downward pressure on the cost of a haircut, and there would be countless barbers running wild in the state, many of them working part-time and freelance. With licensing, the number of people who are allowed to cut hair is kept small, and the incomes of guild members kept artificially high.

Of course, hand in hand with licensing is blood money (“revenue”) for the coffers of the state. Pennsylvania has a complete slate of exam, licensure and renewal fees for barbers, barber-managers and barber-teachers. (You never outgrow your need to fork over money to the government. If you want to be a barber in Pennsylvania, you have to pay up every two years.)

While all of the above are likely motives for the state’s “barberism,” finally we come to the granddaddy of all: patronage. In Pennsylvania, the State Board of Barbers Examiners consists of nine members, all appointed by — surprise! — the governor (with the “advice and consent” of the Senate, of course). The Big Dog thus gets to appoint nine lackeys, family members and stooges to cushy government jobs, where they can draw sweet salaries and goof off all day at taxpayer expense.

In the midst of all this nonsense, this thievery, expense and bureaucracy, comes one of the greatest inventions and batons of freedom of the 20th century – the Flowbee! Yes, now you can be your own barber, and the state of Pennsylvania will graciously allow you to cut your own hair without a license. I can even cut the hair of family members of my own household, but not anyone else’s – if I dare turn the attention of my Flowbee onto the head of my visiting father, I’m subject to a fine of up to $300 and/or 90 days in the clink if the “barber police” catch me!

March 17, 2006

Andrew S. Fischer has worked in various fields.

Andrew S. Fischer