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Port: But who will protect us from unlicensed haircuts?

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Rob Port
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MINOT, N.D. — No sane person wants a crisis.

Certainly, nobody wanted a global pandemic which, by the time it's done burning its way through humanity, will kill hundreds of thousands if not millions.

Still, something is clarifying about a crisis — something that can prompt us to dispense with the unnecessary.

That seems to be the case with America's regulatory and occupational licensing regime. The federal government, and particularly our state governments, have been slashing the red tape that surrounds American businesses and workers.

"As the nation's economy and health-care system struggle to adjust to the pandemic, more and more states are reexamining some of their oldest occupational and business regulations — rules that, although couched as protecting consumers, do far more to limit competition," Paul Sherman, an attorney with the Institute for Justice, wrote recently in The Atlantic. "And for those of us who have long questioned the supposed benefits of these policies, their erosion is welcome, even if the pandemic that caused it is not."


Not all regulations are harmful. I believe in building codes, for instance.

Also, some occupations do need licensing. I think we can all agree that a person needs some testing and credentialing before being allowed to perform heart surgery.

But does a surgeon, already appropriately credentialed in one state, really need the rigamarole of credentialing in another state to practice there?

Some occupations need licensing for reasons that seem unfathomable. Does your barber need a license? Hair grows back, after all.

If you scrutinize licensing boards, what you'll often find are organizations behaving like guilds protecting members from newcomers who want to compete.

Here in North Dakota, we've had a long-standing battle over the creation of a new tier of dental practitioner, a sort of advanced hygienist who can do some basic care currently only performed by a full dentist.

Our state is very rural. Dentists can be hard to find in some areas. This new tier would increase the accessibility of dental care.

Who has fought a pitched battle against that policy every time it has been proposed? The state's dentists. And they've been effective in beating this proposal at the Legislature every time it's come up, which is great in terms of protecting them from the competition, but not so great for dental care in our state.


The problem with red tape is that politically speaking, instituting it is very easy. Yet once established, it rarely goes away.

What a situation like the one we're in now reveals is that red tape is often a luxury. A burden we can bear in better times.

When times are hard, though, we must stick with what works.

I'd rather reform our regulatory regime from a place of strength, but we don't always get to choose our opportunities.

Coronavirus has awoken millions of Americans to the need for reforms. If there's a silver lining to this terrible situation, it's that.

To comment on this article, visit

Rob Port, founder of, is a Forum Communications commentator. Reach him on Twitter at @robport or via email at .


The Graver Barber Shop sits vacant Thursday, April 2, in downtown Fargo. Michael Vosburg / Forum Photo Editor

The Graver Barber Shop sits vacant Thursday, April 2, in downtown Fargo. Michael Vosburg / Forum Photo Editor

Related Topics: NORTH DAKOTA
Rob Port is a news reporter, columnist, and podcast host for the Forum News Service. He has an extensive background in investigations and public records. He has covered political events in North Dakota and the upper Midwest for two decades. Reach him at Click here to subscribe to his Plain Talk podcast.
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