If you’re going to sit with someone for two hours, chances are you’ll get to talking. Well, I should clarify, normal people will get to talking, whereas I tend to close my eyes and grunt at any attempts people make to initiate small talk with me. Cab drivers, customer service reps, people taking my order, hair stylists, anyone. They try to start talking with me about the weather, my job, my partners, whatever. No. Shut up. You don’t care about me. I don’t care about you. Let’s just acknowledge that and move on with our brief time together in which the only reason you’re talking to me is because I’m paying you to do something.
Even on my best days, this is how it goes. However, occasionally, I feel the desire to get to know the person who is servicing me in some way. Thus was the case when I went in to get my hair done recently. I decided to get my hairdresser’s opinion on occupational licensing.
Now, you must understand. Just because I don’t care to converse with people that I don’t know, doesn’t mean that I’m not any good at it. I know, for example, that to get a complete stranger, particularly someone in a service job, to give you their honest opinion, takes a delicate hand. You can ask them what they think outright, but they will hedge around the question, make vague answers, and generally not give you anything worth hearing. If you’re careful, though, and you know how to listen, you can learn a lot.
I found my opening in this particular conversation as my Aaron*, my hairdresser, started to apply the thick goupy dye onto my short locks. As the cold of the gel raced down my spine, he began griping about how he’d had to pay California fees on a car that he hadn’t driven in six years and hadn’t owned in five. When he fought the taxes, California had charged him $100 in processing—to get the money back on the error that he made. “The state has to make their buck,” he said, sighing.
My ears tingled in a way that had nothing to do with the brush running behind them. Oh, really?
I made some sort of offhand comment about how states do whatever they can to wrangle money out of people, and he groaned an affirmative. But I didn’t press him on this, not yet.
After my hair was a nice shade of deep chestnut, he set about chopping some of it off. As the snip of the scissors sliced the air around my ears, I asked him about a salon down the road that seemed to have a high turnover rate in the stylists who worked there, yet at this one I had seen the same set of people every time I had visited, and he himself said he had worked there 10 years. I asked what he liked about this place that made him stay, and what kind of things would drive stylists to work at other places. I asked about his time in California, and why he moved back to Pennsylvania.
It’s then, and only then, that I asked him about licensing. I asked if he could use the same license in California that he did in Pennsylvania. It depended, he said. He had to re-train for California, but his PA license would work in Jersey, for example. I asked if he needed a full cosmetology license, and he said, no, he could also get a barber’s license.
Everyone likes to talk about themselves, some people just take a little more encouragement than others. I was an hour and a half into knowing this man, and only after almost a whole hour of gentle, patient questioning did he start to offer information freely. Most of the licensing laws were the same across states, but some, like New York, were tougher to get than others. Not that the skills were any different or the knowledge required any deeper—the licenses were just harder to get for some reason. Alaska, he said, was particularly difficult.
He didn’t understand the reason why this was. Don’t mistake me; he wasn’t stupid. He didn’t understand because it was beyond his comprehension. He didn’t understand because there didn’t seem to be anything there to understand. The rules and regulations were arbitrary, meaningless. After ruminating on this for a moment, he came back to the same verse he’d said before: The state had to make it’s buck.
We paused for him to show me how he’d gotten the hair off the back of my neck. I thanked him profusely (summer is hot, and I hate the heat). He spun me around back to the mirror and I finally felt comfortable asking a more direct question.
“Why do you think people need a license to cut hair?”
He was silent for a moment, snipping my bangs as he thought. “Hm, well, I am handling sharp instruments around people.”
“But you can buy barber’s scissors anywhere, right?” Yes.
“So why do you need a license to use them?”
“Well, if you’re going to be cutting hair and charging people…” He didn’t finish his sentence. I decided to let it air for a minute. I asked if he knew that in Florida, you have to have a license to be a florist—and an interior decorator.
He paused from cutting my hair for a moment and looked at me through the mirror. Or, at least I assumed he did. I had my glasses on and couldn’t see. “Really? Why?”
I shrugged. “It’s like you said. The state has to get its buck.” I paused. “But I also think that it’s because people in the industry want to it harder to get in. They are the people who usually push for these sorts of laws in the first place. Say you’re some dude who likes flowers. You don’t like what you see the florists around you doing with arrangements. You think you can do better, so you buy some flowers and set up a shop. Except now you also have to pass a test set by your competition that essentially shows that you play by their rules. Which is the opposite of what you wanted to do in the first place—and, on top of that, it costs you money.”
He grunted thoughtfully as he picked up a part of my hair to layer it. “And,” I added, taking a wild stab at his political orientation, “If you’re a poor entrepreneur, these kind of regulations…”
“…tend to keep you poor,” he finished.
He was doing so well, so I decided to approach hair again. “You know, people who do African hair braiding have to get full cosmetology licenses in some places.”
His response was immediate. “Well, I can see a reason for that. They often cut hair, even though they say they don’t.”
I gave a short “hm” and decided not to argue that point. He knew the industry better than I did. Before I could think of what to say next, he continued. “I think that they should have a license. It’s frustrating to have to go through the whole process, pay all that money, and then have someone set up shop beside you and take all your clients.”
I nearly sighed with the beauty of that simple truth. I don’t think he realized he said it, as he was focused largely on finishing off the last bits of my cut. But I did. This was my reward of nearly two hours of painstakingly subtle pushes. It was the most honest, earnest, forthright thing a stranger has ever said to me, because it was so completely, unabashedly, self-interested.
I rambled off something about what a world would be like if no one had to have licenses to cut hair, but we let the conversation move on to exciting things like what a “round” haircut means. I didn’t try to convince him to go on an anti-licensing crusade. I didn’t even try to get him to admit that licensing was wrong, or that it might not be a good thing. I just let the conversation go.
This is not a story about how I converted my hair stylist into a libertarian. It is, more than anything, a story about how I learned something. It was never my intention to convince him, or even try. I just wanted to understand him. That was enough of a reward of two hours of gentle effort—that, and a pretty snazzy hair cut.