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Michael Haugen | September 10, 2015
Branding itself as a “high-end gentleman’s barbershop,” Barbiere, located in Washington, Pennsylvania, is a throwback to haircut establishments of generations past. Stating that they “strive to keep traditional barbering alive in today’s busy world,” Barbiere is a place where men, as client Robert Craig says, can “get away after a hard day’s work, get a haircut and have a beer.” As their website claims, men can find “all they’re looking for and more” at Barbiere.
One thing that Barbiere owner John Interval perhaps wasn’t looking for, however, was a visit from a state regulatory agency for refusing to cut a woman’s hair.
Such was the occurrence after the woman filed a claim with the state’s Bureau of Professional and Occupational Affairs, who levied a $750 fine on Interval for gender discrimination after an investigator with the agency visited the business, according to a news report:
“I didn’t really consider it so much a discrimination thing as – it’s a barbershop… for guys,” Interval said.
Interval says he wasn’t aware he was legally compelled to service both men and women. But he plans on paying the fine because he respects the law.
While citizens are indeed compelled to follow the letter of the law, that shouldn’t obviate maintaining a healthy sense of introspection about the sensibility of such, either.
Setting aside for a moment the question of whether a business like Barbiere ought to be fined in the first place, consider the amount of the fine. Steep fines like this lack an element of proportion when a business owner can be fined $750 for denying a service that normally goes, as Barbiere’s website states, for $32. What justification does a regulatory agency have to determine that denying a haircut mandates a penalty that could pay for over twenty-three of them? Such lopsided sanctions put strains on a reasonable conception of “justice.”
Another troubling tendency found not only in cases of overcriminalization, but throughout much of recent American legal practice in general, is that government itself claims the mantle of victimhood, not the harmed individual. This is problematic because business owners end up as little more than slush funds for regulatory agencies that can’t, by any normal sense of logic, claim to be the actual aggrieved party.
Circling back around to whether businesses like Barbiere should be fined at all comes a question: is it really an affront to suggest that there exist businesses that, far from being maliciously discriminatory, simply wish to operate within a niche market by providing services catered to some, but not all? As Interval stated, his intentions weren’t “so much a discrimination thing as—it’s a barbershop…for guys.” After all, he didn’t even possess the necessary equipment and accoutrements to satisfactorily cut a woman’s hair. Should he be punished anyway?
Rather than erecting onerous regulatory apparatuses around such business practices, perhaps we should be appealing to simple market forces, which are wonderfully self-correcting. To wit, other haircut establishments that don’t follow such a limiting business model could provide the services Barbiere cannot, which puts market pressure on Interval to either begin cutting women’s hair, or lose potential business. It doesn’t take a business having to turn away an increasing number of would-be customers before deciding it might not be worth it.
Overcriminalization and overregulation is a growing problem, but it doesn’t have to be that way. Government doesn’t always have to provide the answer to societal problems. Viable alternatives almost always exist if we have the wherewithal to seek them.