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Denial of Economic Opportunities: The Case of Barber Licensing

By Caleb Taylor

What was the motivation and reasoning behind the original state regulation of barbers in Arkansas? 

ACRE Research Fellow Tanner Corley explored this question and more in an op-ed, “Hairy regulations,” published in the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette on December 11.

According to Corley, Arkansas barbers were able to appeal to fears of unsanitary barber shops in order to pass a 1937 Arkansas barber law that required six months of barber practice or 1,000 hours in training. 

Corley writes: 

When the barbers used licensing laws to seek better wages and less competition, they were effectively denying some people the opportunity to make a living. This is how licensing laws work. Once implemented, it outlaws all unlicensed workers from practicing their trade.”

Corley is from Bismarck, Arkansas. He is a senior with a double major in History and Political Science. After graduating he plans to attend graduate school for history.

Corley’s paper, “Barber Licensing in Arkansas: Public Health or Private Gain” co-authored with former ACRE Scholar-in-Residence Dr. Marcus Witcher in the Winter 2021 edition of Cato Journal also explores the history of barber licensing in Arkansas.

Corley and Witcher write:

While other scholars have investigated the consequences of such legislation, we believe more attention should be paid to the origins of occupational licensing laws. Our case study demonstrates that barbers in Arkansas captured the regulatory apparatus and used it to decrease competition in their profession and raise their wages. They also grandfathered themselves in to avoid the newly established requirements to receive a license. Finally, once the Barber Board was created, only barbers sat on the board and many of them engaged in rent seeking to secure positions both on the board and as inspectors. The creation of barber licensure in Arkansas was not established to protect public health but for private gain. Accordingly, we should be skeptical of occupations today that seek licensing for the “public good.”

For a broader look at occupational licensing in Arkansas, check out  ACRE Economic Policy Analyst Alex Kanode’s policy statement, “Occupational Licensing and Arkansas’s Act 600”, here

For more on this topic, check out our labor market regulation research page.