State cuts off barber
Feb. 14, 2011
by Ivan Raconteur

Ignorance of the law is no excuse. If a person breaks the law, he deserves the consequences. Or does he?

In Sherwood, OR, the case of Dale Smith might lead one to a discussion of whether a strict interpretation of the law is always the right way to proceed.

Smith, 82, was recently ordered to stop working as a barber because an inspection revealed that his license expired in 2006.

The state of Oregon initially said Smith would have to go back to school in order to get his license reinstated.

He appealed for leniency, and the state cut him a break, waiving the requirement that Smith take a 100-question barber skills test. However, the state still requires Smith to take a 75-question assessment test in order to get his license reinstated.

Smith says he didn’t know his license was expired and he would have renewed it had he known. Now, because his license has been expired for more than three years, Oregon state law requires that he be re-certified.

Smith said he is willing to pay fines to get his license back, but the law does not allow that.

If Smith were to go on cutting hair without a license, he would be subject to fines starting at $100 and increasing to $500.

State officials say the law is designed to make sure everyone is current on all of the safety requirements, and it has to treat everyone equally.

It is difficult to argue with that.

We all benefit when businesses follow the same safety rules.

It also seems like it would be good for the law to treat everyone equally (although one might question if this is really the way things work).

On the other hand, one wonders if there are times when it would be OK to make an exception.

Smith made a mistake. He didn’t renew his license, and he is responsible for the pickle in which he finds himself.

But, one can understand his reluctance to take the test. He said he has not taken a written test since 1956, when he graduated from barber school. That was more than half a century ago, and it is easy to see how he might find the test intimidating.

We must be brave and face it; if there is anything about the barber business that he hasn’t learned during his 54 years as a practicing professional, it is unlikely that Smith will learn it by taking a test.

One might also ask who is being hurt by Smith cutting hair.

If he were practicing medicine, we might want to be sure his license was up to date.

If he were flying a plane or driving a bus, we might expect him to keep his credentials current.

But, if all he is doing is cutting hair – the way he has for more than five decades – I’d be inclined to cut the guy some slack.

He is 82 years old, and has operated his own shop for 18 years. This suggests that, at a time in his life when many people would be contemplating retirement, Smith was opening a new business.

He has cut the hair of generations of people in the small community in which he lives. One has to believe that if he was doing a bad job, people would have quit coming back, and yet, his customers were the first to come to his defense when the state made him close his shop.

Smith doesn’t even have a phone, and relies entirely on walk-in customers.

Smith doesn’t seem like a scofflaw or a public enemy. He certainly can’t be getting rich off of his “victims,” because he still only charges $8 for a haircut.

He is not a master criminal, just an old man who is working at something he loves, which not only gives him a small income, but helps him combat his loneliness (I am not offering an opinion here; Smith stated that he felt lonely sitting in his empty shop turning away customers after the state shut him down).

At an age when some people are receiving lifetime achievement awards for their long careers in a particular industry, Smith finds himself fighting for survival against the big bad bureaucracy.

Smith broke the law and is facing the consequences.

It seems sad, somehow, that the government is taking such a hard line on one old man, when there are so many powerful people and corporations out there that deliberately break the law for profit.

These people often hurt others in the process, and yet, they seem to be above the law, and continue to get away with it, because they can afford to do so, or because the government says they are “too big to fail.”

We need laws to protect the citizens. Some days, however, it seems as though there should be something to protect the citizens from the law.

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