Your barber has to get government permission to cut hair, or risk jail time.
In Maine, barbers must be at least 17 years old, have completed 10th grade or its equivalent, have finished a 1,500-hour course of instruction or a 2,500-hour apprenticeship, passed an approved examination and paid a $20 fee (renewed annually, of course).
Practicing barbering without a license is a class E crime—punishable by up to six months in jail—and a civil violation punishable by a fine of up to $5,000 and not less than $1,000. Other charges, such as theft by deception, might also apply, potentially resulting in a felony conviction.
According to a 2012 report by the Institute for Justice, barbering is “among the most widely and onerously licensed occupations” across the country; all fifty states require licensure. The amount of training required, however, varies from state to state. Aspiring barbers in New York only need to complete about 288 hours of instructional coursework. Residents of New Hampshire must undergo 800 hours of preparation, while applicants in Colorado, Massachusetts, Missouri, New York, Vermont and Washington need 1,000 hours of training to become licensed. In Iowa and Nebraska, 2,100 hours are required.
Other requirements vary as well. In Vermont, barbers must be at least 18 years old and have completed 12th grade. In Georgia, 16 year olds are welcome to apply. The application fee in Connecticut is $100, while Michigan—you have to give them points for creativity—charges $50 on even-numbered years and $80 on odd-numbered years.
Do these differences in state policies result in disparities in service quality and consumer safety? Not that anyone can tell.
Yet formal training requirements impose significant burdens on those considering a career in barbering, especially for young people and the poor. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the median annual wage for barbers is $24,850. For instance, the Capilo Institute, located in Augusta, charges $11,500 for the limited barber course—more than 46 percent of the average barber’s annual income.
Those who have the time and resources to obtain a barbering license, of course, enjoy less competition, resulting in higher prices. An analysis by the Mercatus Center in 2015 concluded, “A careful examination of the data shows that occupational licensing of barbers…increases the earnings of the professionals without any measurable benefit to consumers.”
The only possible justification for imposing such onerous regulations on barbers would be a concern for public safety, coupled with an empirical demonstration that market forces are inadequate to warn consumers of incompetent barbers. Yet Maine requires those seeking to become an EMT-Basic to only undergo 120 hours of training; would anyone argue that an incompetent first responder is less likely to inflict harm, or that an EMT’s skills require less time to master?
In fact, licensing barbers—and many other professionals—may lead to a decline in service quality as practitioners grow complacent in the absence of vigorous competition. When barriers to market entry are removed, incompetent workers are quickly dealt with (would you go back to a barbershop after receiving a third-rate haircut?) while skilled practitioners—regardless of their formal training—thrive.
As the Wall Street Journal highlighted in 2012, some entrenched interests in the barbering profession oppose licensing reforms. In response to a proposal to repeal barber licenses, the director of a barbering school in Michigan said: “I’m not saying we are as important as doctors, but we are the closest you can get. We are turning this into the Wild, Wild West….I’d like to see them get a haircut in a barber shop five years from now. It will be like rolling the dice.”
Go ahead, roll the dice. We’ll be okay.