Although the bill ultimately failed, it forced the Board of Barber Examiners to justify its existence. The board denounced the bill as a mistake. In a hearing hosted by the Board of Barber Examiners, the director used the history of the board’s creation to justify opposing the bill. The director proclaimed that “the State Board of Barber Examiners was founded 82 years ago to prevent unlicensed barbers from coming to Arkansas and working in unclean and unsanitary conditions. The minutes of that first meeting indicate it was out of control” (Arkansas Board of Barber Examiners 2019).
The board presented a story in which a public health crisis made licensing regulations necessary to ensure that Arkansans got a safe shave. The minutes from the first meetings of the board, however, do not support that claim. Indeed, the minutes consist of mundane items and certainly nothing that indicated the profession was “out of control.” Modern‐day justifications for the existence of the board rest on its protection of public health. But the origin of the Board of Barber Examiners is much more complicated and less noble than the director wanted Arkansans to believe.
Much work has been done in recent years on occupational licensing and its effects on the economy (Timmons and Konieczny 2018; Thornton and Timmons 2015; Zapletal 2019). The commonly held view in the literature is that occupational licensing limits the number of people who can participate in an occupation, thus restricting supply and raising the cost for consumers. Moreover, the regulatory apparatus that is created by licensing laws often leads to rent seeking and sometimes to capture by the industry (Kleiner 2000). Scholars also argue that restrictive occupational licensing disproportionately harms minorities who are denied access to labor markets (Bernstein 1994; Klein, Powell, and Vorotnikov 2012). As more and more occupations have become licensed in America, the negative effects of licensure have become more evident and important (Kleiner 2000). While most of the research on occupational licensing focuses on its effects on the modern economy, very little work has emphasized how these regulations came about in the first place. Indeed, this may be the first article to examine the origins of barber licensure in any state. By looking at a specific industry in a specific state, we uncover the tactics of barbers and unions in seeking licensing laws.
Arkansas adopted regulations licensing the barber industry in 1937 and was one of the last states to adopt such regulations. Accordingly, the tactics used by the Journeyman Barber International Union of America (JBIUA) to lobby for licensing were well developed by the time the union came to Arkansas in the hope of achieving legislative reforms. After a couple years of organizing, and in the midst of the Great Depression, the Board of Barber Examiners was created and given the task of enforcing licensure laws on all of the barbers in the state. Not long after the formation of the board, letters came pouring in from local barbers and others who had campaigned for the regulations and were seeking the enforcement positions created by the new law. In this sense, the story of the origin of barber licensure in Arkansas resembles many other stories in which an entrenched interest lobbies the government to create a regulatory framework to exclude potential competitors. Once that framework has been created, it is often the established professionals that capture the regulatory body and use it to perpetuate their market share (Downs 1957; Olson 1965; Stigler 1971; Hilton 1972; Posner 1974; Peltzman 1976; McChesney 1987; Leaver 2009).2
Arkansas did not lack regulations governing barbers prior to the creation of the board, although it did lack licensing. As early as 1913, Arkansas introduced sanitation codes that covered various trades, including barbers. Act No. 96, introduced in 1913, gave the State Board of Health the power to introduce sanitation regulations that mirrored the regulations advocated in 1937. The purpose of the 1913 act was to prevent the spread of disease in unsanitary barbershops (Arkansas State Board 1913). Despite the existence of these sanitary regulations, barbers lobbied for a barber board that would impose licensing requirements. It seems clear that sanitation was not the sole—and perhaps not the primary—motivating factor for such lobbying.
During the 1930s, Arkansas barbers cited public health as their main justification for the creation of a barber board. In reality, they also had a powerful private interest in creating a regulatory apparatus that would give barbers more control of the profession. To push for licensure laws, barbers created a local Journeyman Barber Union that fell under the umbrella of the JBIUA (Hope Star 1936: 1; Northwest Arkansas Times 1938: 1). While motivations for wanting to become licensed may have varied from barber to barber, the union presented some common reasons. If we look at the history of the international union, it becomes clear that the barbers used longstanding tactics to capture the regulatory apparatus through creating a board run by them.
The story of barber licensure in Arkansas is a story full of rent seeking. In establishing licensing laws, barbers were motivated by the prospects of limiting competition and increasing their wages. Perhaps unsurprisingly, after the Board of Barber Examiners was created, many barbers sought jobs on the board and favors from it. Rent seeking occurs when a private interest seeks favorable legislation from the government to increase its wages and exclude competition (Tullock 1967; Krueger 1974; Tullock 1993; Tullock, Seldon, and Brady 2002). Although most of the General Assembly in Arkansas supported the law creating the board, enforcing the new rules was not smooth sailing. In fact, some barbers opposed the law, and organizing such a large industry was difficult. Most importantly, perhaps, the creation of the board placed new power in the hands of the few men in charge. Employment on the Board of Barber Examiners was widely sought, especially given that the board was created during the Great Depression. The opportunity for nepotism and corruption arose, and some barbers attempted to use their political leverage to become part of the new regulatory apparatus. Perhaps unsurprisingly to public choice economists, once the board was created and the license law went into effect, many barbers sought even more regulation and further restrictions to entering the profession. As happens with most regulatory frameworks, once in place, the regulatory framework governing barbers expanded and became more burdensome.
Finally, underlying the motivations for the Arkansas Barber License Law was a Progressive Era (1890–1920) desire to professionalize the industry.3 Most barber license laws in the United States were enacted during the Progressive Era. Though Arkansas lagged behind most states, the law followed a similar pattern to the previous ones. Like other professions, such as doctors and lawyers, barbers thought of themselves as highly professional and skilled laborers. Barbers wanted the same respect as other highly professional laborers and adhered to the idea that not just anyone could be a barber. Barbers in Arkansas wanted only skilled professionals to work in barbershops, and by establishing examinations and other barriers to entry, they hoped to restrict barbering to respectable professionals. As is often the case, the new barriers to entry empowered men with racist attitudes, who used their newfound power to limit racial minorities’ entry into the profession.4