Scholarly Comments on Academic Economics

Information for the Hair Dressers in Edinburgh; Against the Incorporation of Barbers—The Second Edition


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Here reproduced is a rollicking, yet virtually unknown, Edinburgh pamphlet of 1758, a liberal criticism of what we nowadays term occupational licensing. The pamphlet presents itself as an official court document (an ‘Information’), but John Cairns and the editor of this republication conjecture that it is a rambunctious variant of such a document. Irrespective of its original function, the pamphlet uses irony to make serious points. The “hair dressers” and “wig-makers” seek liberty to cut hair. The “barbers,” traditionally auxiliary to surgeons, assert an exclusive privilege not only to shaving but also to hair-cutting. The pamphlet teaches key insights: Exclusive privileges reduce quality, supply, convenience and availability, and innovation; their rationales go obsolete; they are inevitably rather arbitrary, generate turf battles, and are a source of social “Rancour” and hypocrisy; they are used opportunistically to seek rents. The pamphlet provides rich context and argues specifics, yet expresses broad liberal principles, calling such exclusive privileges “a Restriction of natural Freedom” and “almost a Reproach to the Constitution.”

Podcast related to this article: John Cairns on the 1758 Pamphlet about Hair-Cutting in Edinburgh (EJW Audio, November 2018).