Regulating cornrows

Posted: Apr 06, 2005 12:00 AM

Every once in a while, people in Washington have a good idea. A really good idea. An idea that creates jobs and provides a service people like.

 Then, the government gets involved.

Some years ago, a married couple, Taalib-Din Uqdah and Pamela Farrell, went into business braiding hair, African-style. They called their shop Cornrows & Co. If politicians' speeches are right, Uqdah and Farrell were heroes: Inner cities need businesses, and the couple had built a booming business in Washington, D.C. They had 20,000 customers, employed 10 people and took in half a million dollars a year. Some women came from as far away as Connecticut, six hours away, to have their hair braided by Cornrows & Co.


 Did the politicians honor these entrepreneurs for contributing to the community? Find ways to encourage others to do similar things? Well, the government did respond. But it wasn't with encouragement.

 Local bureaucrats ordered Uqdah to cease and desist, or be "subject to criminal prosecution." Why? Because he didn't have a license. "It's a safety issue," said the regulators. Those who run a hair salon must have a cosmetology license. The chemicals they use dyeing or perming hair might hurt someone.

 Hair dye is hardly a serious safety threat, but even if it were, Cornrows & Co. didn't dye or perm hair. They only braided it. That didn't matter, said the Cosmetology Board -- they still had to get a license. In order to get one, Uqdah would have to pay about $5,000 to take more than 1,000 hours of courses at a beauty school.

 It's unclear what beauty school would have taught him. Beauty schools didn't even teach the service Cornrows & Co. provided. They taught things like pin curls and gelatinized hairstyles that hadn't been popular for 40 years. One rule required students to spend 125 hours studying shampooing . I didn't realize it was that complicated -- have I been doing it wrong all these years?

 Uqdah says the braiding he provides can't be taught in schools and shouldn't be licensed. "I've watched little second-grade girls sit down and braid each other's hair." He says there's evidence of hair braiding in Africa going back 5,000 years. "You cannot license a culture." He says the licensing test is weighted heavily toward the needs of straight or chemically straightened hair, not the kinky hair many blacks have. When he argues that different hair requires different skills, he says, licensed cosmetologists "go into denial. They like to think that they know how to do it all. And they don't."

 Uqdah thought he understood why the cosmetology board wanted to shut down his salon: "Money -- other salons don't like the competition."

 I think he was right. Even if licensing boards intend to protect the public, in time they are captured by the people who care most. Who cares most? Not consumers -- you don't get your hair done that often, and even if you did, you don't care enough about it to want to join a regulatory bureaucracy. Innovators don't join the boards; they're busy innovating. Scientists, economists, doctors, and others with genuine expertise in safety and commerce don't join the boards, either. They're busy doing more important things. So boards are usually captured by the licensees, the established businesses. William Jackson, a former member of the Washington, D.C., Cosmetology Board, admitted, "The board, 90 percent of the time, are salon owners."

Uqdah refused to close his shop. He fought the government instead, ultimately going to federal court with the help of the Institute for Justice, a libertarian law firm, and D.C. changed its law. Now, hair braiders don't have to get training that has nothing to do with what they do. Uqdah says, "I had to spend 10 years fighting the city. And now I've gone out and created a mechanism that other people can do what I've done -- with or without a license."


 He and those others are fortunate that the Institute for Justice took his case. Usually, the established businesses get away with using licensing boards and "safety" regulations to crush competitors. That's unfair. And if the question is who's protecting the public, it seems to me Taalib-Din Uqdah has done much more than the bureaucrats who wanted him to spend 125 hours studying shampooing.