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
"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Uqdah and his wife successfully challenged the city's outdated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