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Louisiana Won’t Let You Braid Hair? Maybe You Can Sell Flowers.

Absurd occupational licensing requirements are costly for the economy and harmful to the workforce, but we don't seem to be able to do much about them.

Hair braiding
Suppose you’re a resident of Louisiana and you’re drawn to a career that involves fashion and beauty. You look into a job as a cosmetologist, only to find a huge obstacle: It takes 1,500 hours of training in Louisiana to get a cosmetology license. You scale down your ambitions and investigate something simpler — braiding hair. That gives you an even more surprising shock: It takes 500 hours of training just to become a hair braider. State law seems determined to thwart you at every turn.

It’s an absurdity, but Louisiana’s elected officials have refused for years to do anything about it. A bill to eliminate the braiding license requirement stalled in the Legislature just a few weeks ago. While it isn’t quite dead yet, it looks like braiding licenses may continue to be extremely difficult to get for quite a while. And also very expensive. According to one estimate, it can cost $14,000 to get through the required 500 hours, and those who go for it incur an average debt of $8,000.

Fortunately, there may soon be a consolation prize. You may be able to cultivate your aesthetic sensibilities by becoming a florist. Getting a florist’s license in Louisiana has been almost as onerous as getting a braider’s license, but the state House moved in April to eliminate that requirement, and the state Senate is now working on it. The legislator pushing for this change, GOP Rep. Mike Bayham, said that “there is no health, welfare, fiduciary or safety justification for this license. We are the only state in the union that requires a license for florists.”

Why would Bayham have a better chance to de-license florists than hair braiders? There’s a simple answer. The florist bill has a powerful constituency behind it: the state’s grocery lobby. Grocers don’t have any desire to braid hair, but they do want to sell flowers, and as the law stands now, they can’t do that without a license. An executive of the Associated Grocers testified in favor of Bayham’s bill. He said that in rural parts of the state, there isn’t any place to get flowers except a grocery store. The committee then approved the bill on a 15-3 vote, and sent it on to the House floor, where it passed 95-4. The House is considering a separate bill to reduce the number of training hours for cosmetologists from 1,500 to 1,000, but its enactment is far from assured.

Aside from telling us something about how legislatures work, this story reinforces a well-known dictum about political action: An intensely interested minority will defeat an apathetic majority nearly all the time. It’s inconceivable that most Louisianans, or residents of any state, really want to make it hard to become a hair braider or a cosmetologist. But they don’t really care one way or another. The practitioners of those professions care a lot. And so the regulations remain in place — at least for now. This “intense minority” principle explains why, in Bayham’s count, about one-fifth of the jobs in Louisiana currently require a license and some amount of training.

It’s accepted that some jobs should require a pretty extensive round of training. None of us want an amateur engineer building bridges or an untrained architect building our houses. The same is true for doctors. Brain surgery is not a job for the self-taught dilettante.

OR AT LEAST YOU WOULDN’T THINK SO. The libertarian economist Milton Friedman wrote in the 1960s that anybody should be able to practice medicine and that the free market would weed out the incompetents. I thought that was ridiculous when I came across it, and I still do, but Friedman’s broader argument made sense: We license far too many occupations, and consumers suffer from the shortage of practitioners this creates.

“Licensure,” Friedman wrote in his influential 1962 book Capitalism and Freedom, “frequently establishes essentially the medieval guild kind of regulation in which the state assigns power to members of the profession. … Any one of these measures, whether it be registration, certification or licensure, almost inevitably becomes a tool in the hands of a special producer group to obtain a monopoly position at the expense of the rest of the public.“

I should probably confess at this point that I have always harbored a closet fondness for the occupational guilds that existed in medieval cities. If you were a brewer or a draper, or a wool merchant, you joined a club that met regularly to dine and drink, practiced convivial sociability and staged an annual banquet that reinforced the notion that you were part of a close-knit community that eased the burdens of everyday life. Not a bad deal.

If you weren’t in a guild-protected occupation, however, you missed out on the conviviality and paid extra for the commodities you purchased. Economists have been pointing this out for centuries. Adam Smith wrote in The Wealth of Nations in 1776 that “people of the same trade seldom meet together, even for merriment or diversion, but the conversation ends in a conspiracy against the public, or some contrivance to raise prices.” He was talking, of course, about guilds.

Since then, numerous studies have concluded that occupational licensing costs the public money. Research in 2010 by the Princeton economists Morris Kleiner and Alan Krueger found that occupational licensing in the United States resulted in 2.8 million fewer jobs and represented a loss of more than $200 billion to the economy. In another study, Kleiner and Krueger concluded that licensing created a wage premium of at least 15 percent in the U.S. labor market, and that this premium was simply passed on to consumers in higher prices.

Notwithstanding all this evidence, the fact is that in the past few decades licensing became more common in this country, not less common. According to a 2015 study conducted by the Pew Charitable Trusts, only about 5 percent of the American workforce was licensed in the 1950s. By 2008, Pew found, the figure was up to 29 percent.

There has been some positive movement in recent years. Nearly 20 states have adopted universal license recognition bills, meaning they’ll honor licenses earned in other states, while nearly every state eased certain medical licensing requirements during the pandemic.

THE DE-LICENSING MOVEMENT IN THIS COUNTRY began to gather some momentum and public attention in California in 2013, when legislation was introduced to allow nurse practitioners to practice independently of physicians without having to obtain a medical license. This followed de-licensing overseas, most notably action in Germany to eliminate requirements in 53 professions for which setting up a business required a license.

California didn’t immediately follow suit. Amid intense opposition from the state medical association, the original bill failed to pass. Nurses did finally get their right to practice, but it took a full decade. De-licensing finally went into effect in January 2023 for all those who had been practitioners in good standing for at least three years.

You might guess that licensure still has its intellectual defenders, and you would be right about that. In a Governing commentary last year, Michael Armstrong of the National Council of Architectural Registration Boards and Marta Zaniewski of the Alliance for Responsible Professional Licensing described the de-licensing movement as “a false solution to various workforce ills.” To be fair, they focused on a need for credentialing for architects, accountants, engineers and land surveyors, and few would dispute their logic on that score. “Minimum qualifications ensured by licensing,” they argued, “exist to protect employers and the public they serve.”

They offered the results of a study by Zaniewski’s organization finding that “businesses unequivocally value licensing and the trust in qualifications that it conveys.” Some 92 percent of businesses surveyed reported that “licensing plays a crucial role in accurately assessing qualifications.” Given the sponsoring organization, the results didn’t exactly come as a surprise.

The most important point about all this is that de-licensing is one episode in the gradual breakdown of many vestigial guild and cartel arrangements that continued to exist in the 20th century and beyond. Well into the 1970s, a cartel of Wall Street investment firms set a minimum fee for stock transactions, and brokers who violated it faced severe sanctions. Just this year, a federal court invalidated the cartel restriction that forced a 6 percent real estate agent’s fee on anyone buying or selling a house.

Milton Friedman was an extremist, but on this general subject he was mostly right. Sometime soon in Louisiana, florists (or perhaps even hair braiders) will benefit from the arguments he advanced more than 60 years ago.
Alan Ehrenhalt is a contributing editor for Governing. He served for 19 years as executive editor of Governing Magazine. He can be reached at
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