Should you have to pay thousands of dollars before you can legally work? Or be imprisoned because you don’t have the money to pay a fine?
Economic liberty – the right to support yourself without needless government interference – is a bedrock principle of what was once called the “American Dream.” And debtor’s prisons were supposedly abolished in a federal law Congress passed in 1833.
But if you’re poor, economic liberty can seem more illusory than real. A case in point is the war many states are fighting against natural hair braiding – a beauty practice popular with African-American women. This type of braiding doesn’t require dyes, coloring agents or any chemicals at all. It’s much safer than bleaching hair or giving manicures.
But seven states require hair braiders to obtain a cosmetology or hairstylist license to practice their craft. That can cost up to $20,000 and require up to 2,000 hours of coursework. Eight more states require hair braiders to obtain a speciality license. Those seeking the license must obtain up to 500 hours of training.
Texas hair braider Isis Brantley has spent more than 20 years fighting for the right to practice her craft. In 1997, she was arrested for braiding hair without a cosmetology license. But she persevered and opened a hair braiding school to teach African-American women her techniques. In 2007, Texas began regulating hair braiders and hair braiding schools. To teach the required hair braiding curriculum at her school, according to the Institute for Justice:
Brantley had to do three useless things: (1) install ten barber chairs that she was not even required to use; (2) obtain at least 2,000 square feet of floor space she was not required to fill; and (3) mount five sinks (even though Texas braiders were prohibited from offering services that required a sink). Texas also told Isis Brantley she had to become a licensed barber school instructor, which meant spending up to 750 hours learning to teach barbering and passing written and practical exams on barbering instruction.
There are countless other examples of big government standing in the way of working people trying to make an honest living. Whether it’s banning young girls from selling Girl Scout Cookies in their own front yard, requiring day care providers to get a college degree to babysit children, or shutting down a seven year-old boy’s lemonade stand for not having a required permit, economic liberty is under attack by the Nanny State.
It's even worse for the poor once they get caught up in the justice system. Cash-strapped cities and municipalities routinely impose “taxation by citation” on people charged with minor offenses such as jaywalking or putting out a trash bin for collection on the wrong day. Ferguson, Missouri, is notorious for this practice. It routinely fines people – primarily its poorest residents – for offenses ranging from “illegal walking” to wearing saggy pants in public. The crackdown has been so successful that 20% of the city’s budget is now paid with municipal court fines.
And if you don’t pay up, or miss a court date, you go to jail. That’s what happened to Qiana Williams, a homeless single mom living in Ferguson. In 1995, she missed a court date after being cited for driving without a license. The judge issued a warrant for her arrest, and a few months later police threw her in jail when she didn’t have $250 to pay a bond for pre-trial release. Williams became part of a Kafkaesque cycle of unpaid tickets, arrest warrants, imprisonment, and ever-increasing fines that she couldn’t afford. When she enrolled in college to pull herself out of this nightmare existence, police arrested her again for unpaid traffic tickets.
States defend licensing rules as necessary to protect the public from harm. And taxation by citation is supposedly needed to bolster city budgets. But in nearly all cases, the poor are the victims of these laws.
Any politician who needs an issue to excite the most vulnerable Americans could do worse than declare war on the Nanny State. Yet the leading Democratic contenders to unseat Donald Trump from the presidency want to dramatically expand it. Elizabeth Warren has declared that no American “succeeds on their own” because they rely on government. Bernie Sanders wants to impose a “meat tax” to fight climate change. Of course, poor people will pay this tax with a larger proportional share of their incomes than anyone else.
Americans don’t need a Nanny State to babysit them from cradle to grave. It’s time to allow the poorest and most vulnerable Americans to pull themselves up by their bootstraps.