Don't thread on me: Shameless rent-seeking in the occupational licensing space

By Aaron Rice
August 19, 2019

If you haven’t seen an eyebrow threading salon yet, you will soon. The brow-shaping trend is sweeping the nation, and devotees of the practice swear by the technique for its precision, convenience, and affordability compared to waxing and tweezing. 

The threading craze is also inadvertently accomplishing something besides perfecting American arches: it’s exposing the shameless rent-seeking that litters the occupational licensing landscape across the country.  

Dipa Bhattarai is a graduate student in Mississippi.  She was born in Nepal, and has been threading most of her life. Eyebrow threading is a very safe method of hair removal that does not reuse the same tools on different customers and does not involve the use of sharp implements, harsh chemicals, or heat. Instead, this simple technique allows threading artists to use nothing but twisted cotton thread, acting like a mini-lasso, to remove stray hair. 

Dipa saw an opportunity to pursue her version of the American Dream when word of her threading expertise led to classmates clamoring for her assistance. She opened a threading store in a local mall. Her clientele grew quickly, and within months, she hired four employees and opened a second location. 

Because threading is so safe, no government license or training is required to offer threading services, and Dipa’s business is thriving. 

Just kidding. If you believed that, you haven’t been paying attention to the licensing industrial complex as it has metastasized across all 50 states.  Fueling this growth are practitioners of various occupations counterintuitively begging the government to impose regulations on them.  In exchange, they gain a sense of legitimacy and monopoly use of a title. These occupations typically have little or no connection to public health or safety – such as flower arrangers, horse massagers, and interior decorators. 

Industry insiders run the unnecessary licensing boards spawned by these regulations, often with no legislative oversight. They have an insatiable appetite for increasing their own job security and earnings by blocking new competitors from the business. Licensing boards are the new unions, and it’s no coincidence that the increase in the former has coincided with the decline of the latter. In the 1950s, only one out of twenty people required a government permission slip to do their job.  Today, that number has skyrocketed to nearly one in three.

Like regulatory black holes, no activity escapes these boards’ jurisdiction. Plucking hairs without a license? Heaven forbid. That is the practice of esthetics, and it can cost you. No encroachment on a licensing board’s turf is too petty to go unpunished. All in the name of protecting the public, of course.  

These protectionist-licensing schemes hurt workers of modest means and young people trying to get their start in life. Which brings us back to Dipa. Business was great, until an inspector for the Mississippi State Board of Cosmetology showed up, issued her a citation, and forced her to close down her business. Dipa had not realized a license was needed simply for eyebrow threading: this was America after all – the land of opportunity. 

When Dipa looked into the licensing requirements, she learned she would be required to take 600 hours of training, which would cost thousands of dollars, and the curriculum would not even teach eyebrow threading.  Instead, the classes would cover waxing, tweezing, makeup, facial massage, and a host of other irrelevant topics. Thinking there must have been a mistake, she contacted the Board. There was no mistake.  

Dipa took many of the required classes, but simply could not afford to take enough time and money away from her graduate studies to complete all of the Board’s irrelevant training.  She pled with the Board to let her thread, explaining that she did not want to perform any of the services taught in esthetician school.  The Board said its hands were tied: state law requires threaders to be licensed – an addition to the law that the Board lobbied for in 2013.  

Of all licensing boards, the Mississippi State Board of Cosmetology should know better.  In 2004, the Board was sued for an almost identical situation: requiring hair braiders to take 300 hours of classes that taught nothing about braiding. After the lawsuit exposed the absurdity of the regulatory regime, then-Governor Haley Barbour signed legislation that deregulated hair braiding.  In the 14 years since that law took effect, over 1,500 braiders have registered new businesses in Mississippi, and nobody has been injured by these unlicensed entrepreneurs. 

Dipa is now represented by the Mississippi Justice Institute, and we are proud to join her this month in filing a lawsuit to challenge the constitutionality of Mississippi’s eyebrow threading laws. But not every budding entrepreneur in America finds their way to a law firm willing to represent them for free. It’s time for the states to adopt substantial and comprehensive occupational licensing reforms. Smothering small businesses in pointless fees and regulation works against our economy and keeps the American Dream out of reach for new generations of entrepreneurs.

This column appeared in the Washington Examiner on August 19, 2019.


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