I firmly believe that if the state more frequently adhered to the motto, “that government is best which governs least,” a greater number of people would benefit. Henry David Thoreau popularized this saying, which is an endorsement of a limited form of government—one that intrudes into people’s lives only when it is absolutely necessary. Unfortunately, that’s not the world in which we live. That can be plainly seen here in Georgia, which may mean that it is time to start chipping away at the leviathan.

When I think of unnecessary government intrusions into people’s lives, my mind sometimes drifts toward Georgia’s occupational licensing laws. They require prospective workers to pay the government for the privilege of being allowed to work. Such regulations supposedly exist, in large part, to “safeguard public health and safety” and ensure that only qualified workers obtain employment. It doesn’t guarantee professionals’ employment; it is just a costly permission slip to work.

Generally, when people discuss occupational licenses, they’re quick to mention medical doctors and other highly complex, high-risk professions, but there are many other licensed occupations. Perhaps one of the most ridiculous licenses are those governing niche-beauty services, which are strangely licensed as cosmetologists. “Unlike traditional cosmetology salons, hairstyling salons offer safe, limited services including shampooing, blow drying and styling hair. These specialty salons do not cut hair or use chemicals or dyes,” according to the libertarian Institute for Justice.

Yet licensing those engaged in niche-beauty services—at least under the current paradigm—makes little to no sense. The Brookings Institution makes this point clear: “Not all occupations pose equivalent threats to health and safety,” which is true. If a doctor prescribes the wrong medication or bungles a surgery, then that can result in someone’s untimely death. If a niche-beauty services professional has a momentary lapse in judgement while blow-drying or styling hair, then they can just start over.

Despite this, there are those who want to keep niche-beauty services regulated under the current model, but is there such a risk to public health and safety from niche-beauty service professionals that the government must intrude into the private market? I don’t believe so.

I’ve known how to shampoo and blow-dry my own hair since I was a child, and I’ve done so without incident. Maybe I was just a highly precocious and self-sufficient boy, but I doubt it. I tend to think just about anyone—especially adults—has the know-how to perform these basic tasks at least at an elementary level. That’s not a knock against those who do this for a living. It’s honest work, and I am sure they are far more talented than your average Joe. But the point is that blow-drying and shampooing are low-risk activities that the government probably doesn’t need to be involved in to a large degree.

Compounding matters even further, niche-beauty service professionals are licensed as cosmetologists, even though they engage in different work. However, these licenses aren’t easy to obtain. A recent report found that Georgia requires the passage of two state exams, a nearly $140 license fee and the completion of 1,500 hours of education. The schooling alone can cost thousands of dollars—an expense that many Georgians cannot afford—and the opportunity costs are likewise oppressive.

Given this, there’s a strong case that many of these workers probably shouldn’t be licensed in the first place, and there are some in the General Assembly who agree. Rep. Beth Camp (R-131) filed a bill (HB 1231) to allow those involved in niche-beauty services to operate without an occupational license. Over the past three years, the legislature has worked to address the state’s licensing requirements, which was ranked the nation’s 14th most burdensome for lower-income occupations, but more is desperately needed.

As it stands, occupational licensing has exploded in Georgia and around the country. Around 70 years ago, less than 5 percent of professions were licensed. Today, that number is closer to 30 percent, and the impacts have been devastating in many ways—keeping people out of the workforce and driving up consumer costs. By some estimates, barriers embedded in professional licensing regimes have resulted in upward of 2.85 million fewer jobs in the United States, and licensing drives up consumer costs by around $200 billion annually.

Approving HB 1231 won’t fix the broader problems with occupational licensing in Georgia, but it is certainly a step in the right direction. While some professional licenses are probably necessary, when Georgia licenses blow drying, then I think it is clear that the state has overstepped its bounds and doesn’t represent Thoreau’s ideal government that “governs least.”

Image credit: Microgen

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