SACRAMENTO – Let’s say you’re hoping to one day open a beauty salon but have yet to acquire all the skills or capital necessary to achieve that goal. You like to shampoo people’s hair and have developed quite the flair for dressing, arranging and curling it. Perhaps you’d like to gain experience by working at a salon – or maybe you’d like to work for one of those new app-based companies that go to people’s homes to provide that service (It’s a service, by the way, that’s a godsend for elderly people who have trouble getting out and about.)

That’s what makes America great – the ability to come up with clever ideas that fill a market niche and to provide your services on the open market. But the reality is not so great these days, especially in California. If you did any of those things detailed above without the proper credentials, you’d be a scofflaw and in danger of being fined and arrested. 

So why not get the credentials? Well, that’s when it gets complicated – and expensive.

Under California’s Business and Professions Code, a shampooer (or anyone who does any sort of work on people’s hair, such as curling) needs to get a license. That only costs $125. But to get that license, you’ll need to spend 1,500 hours in training at a state-approved barbering school. That’s a year of part-time schooling. Tuition, books and barbering tools can cost around $7,500. And, of course, it’s tougher to pay the bills while you’re busy with a big course load.

By the way, most of what you’ll learn – and most of the books and tools you’ll be required to buy – have little to do with your particular specialty of shampooing. Most (hopefully all) of us regularly shampoo our own hair. Every teenage girl has used a curling iron. There’s no threat to public safety in allowing someone to provide this service for others. So what’s going on?

Well, the state Barbering and Cosmetology Board is run largely by licensed barbers and cosmetologists. Existing businesses can limit competition by making it unnecessarily burdensome for others to join the profession, just as taxi companies have tried mightily to shut down Uber.

In response, Sen. Mike Morrell, R-Rancho Cucamonga, has sponsored Senate Bill 999, which would remove shampooing, arranging, dressing, curling and waving hair from the state’s licensing requirements. It’s sponsored by my employer, the R Street Institute, a think tank that promotes practical, free-market solutions. As we’ve discussed Morrell’s bill around the Capitol, we’ve been dismissed by those who couldn’t understand the big deal. After all, they asked, how many people would actually benefit from this?

Though it’s hard to give an exact number, since state law bars anyone from shampooing hair for pay without a license, it’s an issue that comes up regularly. The Board of Barbering and Cosmetology includes this query in its Frequently Asked Questions section: “I would like to hire a person for the sole purpose of shampooing or preparing consumers services; can I do this?” The answer: “No, only a licensed barber, cosmetologist or apprentice can wash a consumer’s hair or prepare a consumer for services.” Clearly, those hoping to become salon workers and owners are asking the question often enough to warrant posting an answer on the website.

California lawmakers often complain about the limited opportunities for low-income people to find meaningful work and about the paltry pay levels for those laboring in minimum-wage jobs at fast-food restaurants and other service establishments. They’re no doubt serious about boosting the financial prospects of people without high levels of skill. So why aren’t they more concerned about removing obstacles to success as some other states have done?

recent survey of state occupational-licensing laws reveals that California imposes some of the highest regulatory burdens on people who simply want to work. The rules are designed to protect “public safety,” but the requirements often have little relation to the level of risk. For instance, while a barbering license requires 1,500 training hours, one needs only 120-150 training hours to be certified as an Emergency Medical Technician in our state.

We’re not talking about removing training requirements for surgeons or attorneys, or even for people who cut or apply chemicals to hair. There are myriad ways to get trained for these, and most other, professions. No one is going to frequent businesses that aren’t good at what they do. And there are plenty of non-government options to help weed those businesses out. The Institute for Justice uses the example of the National Institute for Automotive Service Excellence, which provides a certification for mechanics who subscribe to ASE standards.

We can have a vigorous debate about the value of occupational licensing in general, but there should be no debate about the importance of removing onerous standards that benefit no one and simply get in the way of people doing an honest day’s work.

Steven Greenhut is Western region director for the R Street Institute. Write to him at