Cornrows and Capitalism

Article excerpt

What do African-style hairbraiders and stodgy economists have in common? More than you ever might have imagined. According to a coterie of professors who teach something called "public choice theory," government regulation is often used to restrict competition and protect industries with political clout. While many of these laws - including health and safety standards, environmental rules, and stringent licensing requirements - are passed under the guise of protecting the "public interest," they can also benefit special interests by erecting barriers to entry into the marketplace.

Public-choice theorists make their case with painstaking analytical rigor in obscure academic journals. But some of the most convincing teachers of this basic lesson in law and economics don't wear tweed and don't need textbook formulas to prove the point. In urban neighborhoods and inner-city storefronts from Washington state to Washington, D.C., African-style hairbraiders are battling the effects of restrictive business regulations.

And they're winning. Take Taalib-Din Uqdah, owner of Cornrows Co. in the District of Columbia. Uqdah's tough course in the politics of regulation began four years ago when city inspectors demanded that he obtain an occupational license in cosmetology to run his hair-braiding business. The license required a year of training in everything from manicures to eyebrow arching at a cost of thousands of dollars - but none of the classes covered hairbraiding techniques and other African styles. "I don't have any problem with government wanting to protect public health and safety," Uqdah explained to me. "But the city's code required me to go to an expensive cosmetology school for a year and learn chemical techniques and practices that have nothing to do with what we do. Complying would have killed my company - and pushed many other law-abiding minority business owners underground." Uqdah is blunt when asked why the city would crack down on hairbraiders: "We're new, we're popular, we're a threat. Licensing is a way for old-line cosmetologists to squash a growing cottage industry of people who are skilled in a cultural art form that's foreign to them." Uqdah and his wife successfully challenged the city's outdated cosmetology code with legal help from the nonprofit Institute for Justice based in Washington, D.C. As a result, the D.C. government deregulated the cosmetology industry and allowed hairbraiders to obtain a separate operating license with sensible training requirements. …