SAN DIEGO -- JoAnne Cornwell, an African-American intellectual and entrepreneur, is a petite person. So was Napoleon, breaker of nations. And all Ms. Cornwell wants to break is the restraint foolish laws put on her entrepreneurship. She is fighting them with the help of friends far away.
Ali Rasheed, who has the same problem and friends, operates the Braiderie, a hairstyling salon. He, too, just wants the state of California to get out of his hair. Or, more exactly, out of his customers' hair.
He, too, has the help of the Institute for Justice, a merry band of libertarian litigators in Washington who fight for economic rights wherever they are menaced. Which means wherever government dispenses domestic protectionism to organized economic factions. Which means everywhere. On the shores of the shining Pacific it has found the kind of case it most relishes, one combining "outrageous facts and sympathetic clients."
Ms. Cornwell, 48, was born in Detroit, came to California for college and now teaches French and African studies at San Diego State University. She also has invented and markets a way of braiding African-American hair she calls "sisterlocks." It is complex, elegant and, because it greatly minimizes maintenance, practical.
Braiding without a license
Today tens of thousands of women and increasing numbers of men -- "hair renegades," Ms. Cornwell calls them -- have various styles of braided hair, but few get their braiding done by licensed cosmetologists. Getting licensed costs a ridiculous amount of time and money. The licensing requirements restrict entry into the hairstyling profession, and enrich those private interests who provide the nine months of "training" that costs $5,000 to $7,000. Of the 1,600 hours of training, only 4 percent pertains to health and safety.
What are often unhealthy are the effects of the heat and chemicals African-American women have used to straighten their hair. Ms. Cornwell, who has a Ph.D., says straightening is often destructive of the spirit as well as the hair because it is among the "strategies" for conforming to "encoded" racial stereotypes of white society.
Mr. Rasheed, 56, speaks with the exasperation of a businessman who has been afflicted by bureaucrats "with their little clipboards," pestering him for the offense of committing an "unlicensed activity." An unlicensed activity used to be called freedom, when freedom was understood as the silence of the law: What was not forbidden was permitted. Now nearly 500 occupations (including selling lightning rods, installing fences, keeping bees, cleaning septic tanks) are regulated, often by boards composed of members of the regulated professions.
Mr. Rasheed came here in 1971 from North Carolina. He is no Bill Gates, but he is, in a sense, more important than Microsoft's founder. People like him create more jobs than Microsoft and the rest of the Fortune 500 corporations combined. He considers it imbecilic that, at a time when public policy is trying to move people up from welfare to independence, state licensing requirements put high barriers between people and remunerative work like braiding that requires little capital and rewards traditional skills.
Braiding was practiced for centuries before Manifest Destiny produced California and manifold foolishness produced requirements that people who want to use braiding skills they learned from their mothers must go to school to be taught manicuring, pedicuring, eyebrow arching, application of artificial fingernails and other things irrelevant to the craft they wish to practice. Mr. Rasheed says African-American braiders are supposed to go to schools that teach everything but braiding, and they wind up teaching braiding to fellow trainees, and braiding -- without pay -- in salons run by the training institutions.
The Institute for Justice argues that regulations that restrict entry into a field violate constitutional guarantees of liberty and equal protection of the laws when they bear no rational relationship to a legitimate government objective. In recent years the Institute's litigators have opened the taxi markets of Denver, Cincinnati and Indianapolis and have emancipated the providers of jitney services in Houston, generally for the benefit of minorities and to the consternation of protected interests.
Today the Institute is fighting New York's city council, which lives on a short leash jerked by the Transport Workers Union. The council is trying to stamp out private van services used by up to 40,000 of the city's poorer people each day. Imagine. African-American van drivers could transport African-American customers to African-American braiders, if government would just get out of the way.
George F. Will is a syndicated columnist.
Pub Date: 8/03/97