Academic journal article Policy Review

City Hall's License to Kill Civil Society

Academic journal article Policy Review

City Hall's License to Kill Civil Society

Article excerpt

The sharp knock at the door provoked a frown on the face of Taalib-Din Abdul Uqdah. As the co-owner and manager of Cornrows & Co., the first African hairbraiding salon in the District of Columbia, Uqdah was in the midst of another busy day, and the persistent knocking was an unwelcome interruption.

Uqdah found himself face-to-face with the enforcement officer from the D.C. Board of Cosmetology, who demanded to see Uqdah's cosmetology license. Uqdah replied he had not realized that he needed one, and promised to apply promptly.

Imagine his surprise when he found out that in order to braid hair in the District of Columbia, he had to complete at least 1,500 hours of prescribed training (more than eight months full time) in one of a handful of licensed cosmetology schools, which charged between $3,500 and $5,000. Applicants were required to master chemical and heat treatments of hair (which are irrelevant to braiding) and spend 125 hours practicing shampooing techniques. Each of the 10 people employed by Uqdah had to be licensed this way, and as a manager, Uqdah was required to take further training.

Unable to afford such time and expense, Uqdah and his wife, Pamela, decided to stay open without a license. Soon the cosmetology police returned, this time with a cease-and-desist order. Uqdah faced a choice: close his business for months while he went to school, or continue to operate without a license and confront the prospect of hefty fines and up to 90 days in jail. Uqdah came to us at the Institute for Justice for help.

In the ensuing months, we fought the D.C. Board of Cosmetology in court while Uqdah continued to practice his trade and drew national attention to his plight. The city council finally capitulated and deregulated the cosmetology profession to permit hairbraiding without arbitrary and excessive licensing requirements. Today Cornrows & Co. continues to thrive; ABC's 20/20 has called the business a "shining example of neighborhood success." But the victory did not come cheap. "I fought the cosmetology board for 10 years," Uqdah says. "I think about all the things I could have done . . . if I hadn't been so consumed by my struggle just to earn an honest buck. That's when I get mad."

The lost opportunity, frustrated dreams, and wasted energy that Uqdah laments should outrage all who care about civil society. Not because of this injustice alone, but because the story of Cornrows & Co. is repeated endlessly in cities nationwide, in countless other business and social-service ventures. The cumulative harm casts a pall over the initiative, voluntary association, and spirit of self-help essential to the well-being of individuals and communities.

Policymakers speak of the need to foster vibrant neighborhoods and end the culture of welfare dependency. The devolution of federal power to the states is in vogue among conservatives, but will do nothing to alleviate the suffering of Uqdah and others like him, because their sorrows stem almost entirely from the actions of state and local governments.

All across America, licensing and credentialing requirements imposed by law set the conditions of entry into an astonishing array of activities. These requirements block individuals from engaging in perfectly legitimate enterprises. Sometimes the government sets arbitrary limits on the number of licenses or permits it will grant. For instance, until recently New York City's notorious medallion system had for 60 years capped the number of taxicabs in Manhattan at 11,787. Often the requirements imposed by the credentialing process are so onerous that many find the cost of compliance prohibitive.

The main rationale for this government credentialism is, of course, protecting the health and safety of the public. And indeed, our Constitution gives state governments the authority to regulate activities for this purpose. Thus the government may legitimately require restaurants to maintain sanitary food-preparation facilities, set speed limits for public roads, and demand that taxicabs carry adequate liability insurance. …

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