Why Vietnam is Freer than America (Part 1): Haircuts

Tri An.jpg

an independent businessman

Pictured above is Tri An. He's a barber. He has a small barbershop near Bac My An market on the east side of Da Nang. Tri An owns his shop and, from the look of the place, has had it for a while. Business seems to be good—there's usually at least one customer waiting for him which, I imagine, is because he does a damn good job. Word of mouth is effective advertising: that's how I heard about him. 

He charges a whopping 50,000 dong (roughly $2) for a haircut. He'll even throw in a straight razor shave for another 10 or 20,000 depending on his mood. And that mood is often pretty upbeat—he usually chatters away at me in Vietnamese while he's cutting my hair, which I do my best to understand, or at least pretend to. He may stop to have a cigarette break in the middle of a haircut if he feels like it, and he's always sure to offer to join him because he's a generous fellow. That's just how he rolls. 

nothing out of the ordinary

The plethora of small, independently-owned and run businesses like his is one of my favorite things about Vietnam, and about southeast Asia in general. On the local level, this economic system is not the exception—it's the rule. These businesses give a neighborhood a unique, personal atmosphere and make a person feel like they're part of an organic, living, breathing community. 

One of the reasons these businesses proliferate like they have is the lack of strict regulations on small business here. Generally, small businesses are left alone. Consequently, a strong entrepreneurial spirit has flourished. I have a deep appreciation for that spirit—being one's own boss is a laudable achievement that lends itself to a sense of pride and self-respect. Given the choice, I'd rather make less money working for myself than more money working for someone else, especially if it includes getting to do something I like or am good at. I know many people feel the same way. 

costs and barriers to entry: a world apart

Tri An mentioned the other day—and I'm proud that I was competent enough in my Vietnamese to get it—that he's heard haircuts in the US are usually around $20. That number is about right for a very basic haircut but can go much higher. The price discrepancy got me thinking about some of the profound differences between the economic systems of the US and Vietnam as evidenced in something so seemingly simple as a haircut. There are quite a few reasons for this difference.

One of the major reasons is the amount of licensing and training required. Here are some important points that come to mind.

In order to cut hair for a living in Vietnam, you need:

Certainly, training and courses are available, but they are not required. 

Compare that to my home state of Texas, where the requirements are just a bit more stringent. In order to legally cut hair for a living in Texas, you need a barber license from the fancifully named Texas Department of Licensing and Regulation. This license requires you to complete a number of steps. You must:

  • Enroll in and complete a 1500-hour barber training program, taking around six months to two years, depending on if you study full time or part time. In Texas, these programs can cost anywhere from $3k up to $20+k, averaging around $10k. This program legally must include such courses as, I shit you not, "Science of Barbering," "Hair Weaving," and "Servicing of Wigs." 
  • Pass a 100-minute written exam (which, by the way, costs you $55). 
  • Pass a 180-minute practical exam (which, by the way, costs you $78).
  • Assuming you've completed the course and passed the exams, acquire your Initial Barbering License. 
  • Renew your license every two years (which, by the way, costs you $55). 

You must complete all of these steps to hope to earn the astounding annual mean salary of $29k, which works out to around $14 per hour if you work 40 hours per week. That puts you just around the 40th percentile of wage-earners in the US! Hooray! Hell, even the highest earners, according to these statistics, make a grandiose $20 per hour. Remember: that's before taxes and social security payments. And sure, sometimes they get tips—but as anyone who's worked in the service industry in the US knows, tipping is a fickle practice.

Of course, unless you have the significant capital necessary to start your own business, you'll start by working for someone else. And given the wages you'll get, the odds of you being able to start your own business anytime soon are close to nil. 

Any American knows that, in most parts of the country, $29k per year will get you precisely nowhere. It's treading water at best, even if you live a modest lifestyle. 

Why should you care about barbers?

Comes the reply: but everybody knows that barbers don't get rich. It's not a secret. So what if they're not making lots of money?

It's true: Vidal Sassoon aside, cutting hair is not historically a path to great wealth. However, as a necessary part of society, the well-being of those who practice the trade can be a good indicator of the well-being of society as a whole. In Vietnam, for example, it seems that many barbers are doing alright for themselves.

Another reason you should care: the job of a barber can also not be outsourced. You can't live in the US and have a guy in India cut your hair. There will always be barbers in whatever society you live in, and you will consequently share that society with them. 

Indeed, cutting hair is a profession that's been around as long as hair has. If prostitution is the oldest profession, barbering is probably the second oldest. Not only is it historically and culturally significant, it's a good indicator of the cost of living in a country and can even be compared over time. Consider this: the average time it takes for a haircut now is not significantly different than it was in any previous society, nor is it wildly different across countries. Thus, the cost of a haircut is a great indicator of the overall purchasing power parity in a country—showing you how far your money can go. 

Piling it on

If you're living in any major city—like Austin, for example, where rent is exploding—the kind of money a barber earns is just enough to let you scrape by. The average monthly rent in Austin is $1440 per month ($17,280 per year)—and even in the cheap parts of town you would be lucky to find your own place for under $800. This scenario is played out across the country in the vast majority of urban centers.

Unless you've been under a rock for the last decade, you've seen headline after headline about young people still living with their parents, or sharing apartments or houses with roommates in ages well past their twenties. This is a great example of why. 

Add in all the extra costs that are a fun part of being an American like health insurance (if you're employed part-time), car insurance, car payments, and absurdly high phone bills—and God forbid any accidents, illnesses, unexpected repairs, or traffic tickets—and you're left with a very small amount of your paycheck left over for important things like, say, food or electric bills or water bills or savings. 

And on that note, considering the fact that many Americans have no meaningful savings at all, it's safe to assume that lots of people who enroll in hair styling programs must take out student loans to do so—meaning they have to go into debt, thus further reducing what meager part of their paycheck they may have left at the end of their bills. 

Yet still people question why the middle class in the US is dying and fewer people are having kids. 

The Bloated face of the state

This situation is not unique to Texas—every state requires a license to be a barber. Texas even required a license to braid hair professionally until 2015, when the state government decided, in its infinite clemency, to lift the restriction. 

These regulations on cutting hair mean that, at some point, state lawmakers in every state decided it was worth their time and attention to assemble and pass strict laws and regulations regarding the venerable profession of cutting hair.

Imagining the scene is as amusing as it is perplexing: suited, bloviating and opinionated men debating the finer points of restrictions on how haircuts should be regulated and the specific requirements necessary to be a government-approved barber.

Numerous questions come to mind. How do they know 1,500 hours is enough? What if there isn't enough focus on wigs? What if Florida or Maryland are correct, and only 1,200 hours of training are necessary? How much should we fine barbers for not following proscribed statutes? Where is the line between prudence and arbitrary nonsense? 

I've seen quite a few state legislative sessions: they're dull affairs. Apparently, state legislators had enough time on their hands to really nail down the minutae of this profession. My favorite finable offense they concocted is this: as the owner of a barber shop, you can get fined up to $900 for repeatedly displaying a barber pole with colors other than red, white, and blue. Before you make assumptions, the pole color actually has historical roots related to the practice rather than patriotic ones, but it doesn't matter—they are entirely irrelevant in today's society. 

Shall I mind your business for you?

The state's argument in defense of all these regulations is this: we can guarantee that, by properly licensing and training the barber, they will: 

  1. Know what he/she is doing
  2. Not make you sick 
  3. Have a degree of accountability if something were to go wrong

Additionally, as a fourth point, the barrier to entry will help prevent an oversupply of barbers, thus propping up wages.

Now, look. I understand that sanitation is important. I don't want to catch head lice or a rash and neither does anyone else. But I've lived in southeast Asia for 8 years now, and neither I nor no one I know or have talked to has ever had something bad happen to them at a barber shop other than an ugly haircut or maybe a bit of razor burn. For the record, I've had plenty of those in the States, too, and they're not unique to any country. 

As to point number four, the cost of entry to even begin cutting hair negates itself and likely prevents plenty of talent from entering the market. 

Call me crazy, but I don't believe I need any government body to tell me who can and who cannot legally cut my hair. I'll pay whoever the hell I want to cut my hair. Mind your own damn business. 

Fun comparisons

Here are a few fun facts for you. While you need a license to cut hair, in Texas and many other states:

  • You do not need a license to build houses for sale.
  • You do not need a license to purchase any sort of firearm or ammunition.

Interestingly, if you wish to be a commercial pilot in the USA, you need to have a minimum of 1,500 hours of flight time. I'm aware that there are other requirements besides that, and that flight courses are expensive as hell, but just to reiterate: you need a 1,500-hour training course in barbering to cut hair for money. You need 1,500 hours training flying a plane to fly a plane for money. 

These two things are not the same. A bad barber can give a bad haircut, or in a worst-case-scenario, head lice or a communicable skin disease. A bad pilot can crash a plane and kill people. 

I could go on with other comparisons, but I'd rather not belabor the point.

The takeaway

The main point is this: in the US, the overwhelming government intrusion into such an old profession is beyond the pale and indicative of a cancerous system of over-regulation of small business that has metastasized beyond all reason.

A simpler system of regulation for small business, like that found in Vietnam, feels much more natural and healthy and allows for greater personal economic freedom. Best of all, it requires doing nothing besides leaving people alone. 

In the US, barbering is far from the only profession tainted by governmental over-reach, and is just a microcosm of a much larger problem. In subsequent articles, I'll cover businesses that are similarly over-regulated. 

One important thing to remember is this: it doesn't have to be that way. Unfortunately, Americans have grown to expect an over-regulated system. It's harder to get rid of an entrenched bureaucracy than it is to get gum out of your hair—though the solution is metaphorically similar, in that it requires some serious cutting and temporary ugliness. 

This over-regulation has contributed to the downfall of what was once a hallmark of American society: the independent business owner, an economically independent citizen. It's my firm belief that this has led to a loss of self-respect and a sense of self-reliance on a national level. After all, why go through so much trouble to work as a barber when you can earn almost as much working at Wal-Mart or Target without having to jump through all the hoops? Then at least you'll be guaranteed food stamps. It only costs you your pride. 









Sam McCommon