It was probably the first time the Heritage Foundation, one of the leading conservative think tanks in Washington, had ever hosted a presentation on the legal issues surrounding "ancestral hair braiding."
Isis Brantley, an African-American entrepreneur, told a small, but rapt audience Tuesday about her two-decade legal battle to operate a braiding business and school in Texas.
Brantley's problem was that for most of her career she operated without the state's approval. It demanded that she have a cosmetology license even though braiding and cosmetology are two different things. It wasn't for public safety reasons, either. It is legal in Texas for anyone to braid hair for free. But charging a fee made her a criminal. Brantley's home was eventually raided by seven police officers.
"I thought it was joke," she said, recalling her arrest for braiding hair without a license.
Her presentation was part of a foundation event called the "Summit on Workers' Empowerment." The event was intended to counter a "Worker Voice" summit the White House has scheduled for Wednesday. That event is expected to be heavily represented by organized labor promoting the benefits of collective bargaining. The Heritage presenters argued that the real problem holding back workers is a lack of freedom, in terms of more democracy at the workplace and fewer restrictions for workers going into business for themselves.
Overzealous rules on occupational licensing is a problem the White House has acknowledged. In February, it proposed that the Labor Department budget include $15 million to "help a consortia of states identify, explore and address areas where licensing requirements create barriers to labor market entry." The Senate version of the Labor-Health and Human Services Appropriations bill, which passed its committee in June, contained $7.5 million to address the issue.
In addition to Brantley, two other entrepreneurs discussed their long-running battles with state licensing boards: Sabina Loving, a Chicago woman who created a tax preparation service in a low-income neighborhood that ran afoul of the Internal Revenue Service, and Bill Main, co-owner of a Segway-based tour guide service in Washington and other cities called Segs in the City who had to fight to use "unlicensed" tour guides.
All three argued that the licensing requirements they were told to comply with served no practical purpose in terms of protecting consumers — no one ever got got hurt by a bad hair braid, Brantley noted. The regulations' real purpose was to protect existing industries from competition.
In Loving's case, she said tax-preparer businesses such as H&R Block were pushing the regulations. "They can't get a person's tax return back any faster than I can, but they will try to make you think they can," she said.
What the licensing requirements did do was add cumbersome requirements that hurt her ability to make money. "I would have had no choice but to increase prices for my clients," Loving said.
In Main's case, he was paying college students $25 an hour to lead tours, but it wasn't worth it for the students to go through the D.C. government's licensing requirements since most only worked for a few months during tourist season. Hiring licensed tour guides would have cost Main as much as $40 an hour due to union rules.
The absurdity of it didn't end there, he added. A license was needed only to talk about the national monuments. Guides could lead tours so long as they remained quiet. For a while, his tours used recordings because that was legal.
All three eventually prevailed in their legal fights but only because they were unusually stubborn people and had legal help from from nonprofit groups such as the Institute for Justice. Most entrepreneurs aren't so lucky.
"Imagine if instead of just creating Facebook, Mark Zuckerberg had to be licensed to have a social media site in all 50 states," said conservative activist Derek Khanna, one of the presenters. "Twenty-five percent all of all occupations require licenses."