In a new column over at Forbes, Nick Sibilla from the Institute for Justice (IJ) details the case of Tammy Pritchard, whose attempt to earn a better living as a part-time shampooer in a friend’s beauty salon in Tennessee has been stymied by the state’s restrictive occupational licensing laws.

“Unfortunately for Tammy, unlicensed shampooing is a crime, punishable by up to six months in jail. The Tennessee Board of Cosmetology and Barber Examiners can also impose civil penalties as high as $1,000 for those who dare to lather, rinse and repeat without a license…


“Before she can legally wash hair at a salon, Tammy must finish 300 hours of training on “the practice and theory of shampooing.” In a course more fitting for Greendale Community College, prospective shampooers learn about the “chemistry and composition of shampoos and conditioners,” “shampooing and rinsing foreign material from hair,” and “shop management,” which covers remedial skills like “answering phone, scheduling appointments, ordering supplies.” After completing the class, shampooers then have to pass two exams, one on “theory,” the other practical, to obtain their license.”

Three-hundred hours of training to shampoo another person’s hair, an activity that takes most people a matter of minutes to do for themselves.

According to Sibilla, one school previously charged over three thousand dollars for the course, which is itself a significant obstacle for most workers, particularly those of minimal financial means. But the key word is “previously,” as there are no such courses to be found in the Volunteer State right now. Instead, Sibilla explains, prospective shampooers must complete training for an even broader cosmetology license, which requires not 300 hours of instruction, but 1,500—roughly equivalent to nine months full-time work.

“I feel like that’s an injustice,” Tammy is quoted as saying. Can a reasonable person argue with this?

When we refer to “overcriminalization,” this is but one onerous example. Overcriminalization alludes, not to some esoteric, loosely-defined legal concept that some critics of criminal justice reform don’t even believe exists, but to situations precisely like the one Ms. Pritchard finds herself in, and many others like her: the persistent use of criminal law to crack down on behavior that, in and of itself, isn’t morally blameworthy. Shampooing hair. Bartending. Tree trimming. Interior designing. All of these occupations, according to a landmark study by IJ in 2012, require often-times expensive licenses in many states before people may perform them, where the consequence for failing to obtain one is frequently that of criminal penalties.

Has society benefited by wielding criminal or regulatory statutes in such a manner? Certainly, Ms. Pritchard hasn’t, who must now wade through months of arduously slow civil proceedings, by the end of which she hopes to be allowed to earn a simple living that government has chosen to make elusive.

She’s not the only one, either. A 2015 report by the Brookings Institute shows that while less than 5% of U.S. workers were required to have a license for their job in the early 1950’s, that number had spiked to an estimated 29% in 2008. The trend is quite clear: an increasing number of people must ask government’s permission to work every year.

This case comes at a time when there is much debate about how to ease various barriers into the workforce—particularly for ex-offenders returning to society, but more broadly, for everyone else as well. It’s common for those who are sympathetic to a strong, centralized government to argue that they’re the ones who go to bat for “the little guy”; that government has a responsibility to leverage its influence to create desirable outcomes for the working poor, the disadvantaged, or indeed, ex-offenders. What’s ironic is that this very sentiment so often leads to policies that end up doing just the opposite. Ms. Pritchard, as a young, part time-working mother, is certainly someone that leftist policies have been purported to help but have actually handicapped instead, making it nigh on impossible for her to participate freely in a market and profession of her choosing.

Expansive government has a habit of this, and frankly, can do no better. It isn’t equipped to meddle in the concerns and intricacies of business. It operates best where it operates the least, which is why conservatives are so adamant about government staying to its core competencies: protecting individual rights—including economic liberty, something Texas’ Supreme Court has recently affirmed in a similar case to Ms. Pritchard’s, to their credit—and securing level playing fields. Not wielding the threat of fines and six months’ worth of imprisonment for the grand transgression of failing to ask its permission to give someone a ten-minute shampoo.