It is either a long-needed effort at regulatory reform or else a threat to "the aesthetic welfare of the ladies of the Commonwealth." At issue is a proposal by the director of the Virginia Department of Commerce to reduce regulation of businesses and professions "to the minimum necessary."

The director, Bernard L. Henderson, is pretty well convinced that the "minimum necessary" regulation of beauty parlors does not include requirements that beauticians take 2,000 hours of training, or that an operator's stall comprise a minimum number of square feet, or that mirrors be a minimum of 30 inches long. "You begin with a bunch of Mickey Mouse requirements in the regulations, and then you operate on the supposition that someone who starts a business may not dot every 'i' or cross every 't' so you can call up and complain and let the state harass them a little bit," says Henderson, who has been under attack for his regulatory reform campaign on behalf of Gov. Charles Robb.

He pooh-poohs the notion that the state's 70 licensing boards are primarily concerned with protecting the public interest rather than the economics of the practitioners, and laughs out loud at the hairdressers' association lobbyist who foresees an upsurge in female baldness and a threat to "aesthetic welfare" if Henderson has his way. "I'm not singling out beauty operators, although for some reason beatuticians seem to be the easiest target," he said in an interview. "The other trades and professions are no less guilty of protectionism. It doesn't start with a sinister motive. It starts with the idea that we have got to make our profession or our business respectable by imposing high standards so people don't give us a bad name. But it ends up restricting the entry of other people into the field."

Sometimes it's done with regulations, and sometimes with requirements for needlessly long apprenticeship periods, he contends. He cited the real estate board, which not only has minimum educational requirements for brokers (fine with Henderson), but also regulates the size of lettering on "for sale" signs and requires that an applicant have a minimum of three years' experience as a salesman under a licensed broker. "What that means is that a loan officer at a savings-and-loan who may have spent a career in mortgages and real estate, or a lawyer with immense real estate experience, couldn't become a broker without working for three years as a salesman under some other broker."

Another example: a certified public accountant must not only go to accounting school and pass a CPA exam but must also have two years' experience as an accountant. "That requirement might not keep you out of the business, but it does mean that you might end up doing somebody else's drudge work, at low wages, for two years."

Henderson says the major problem is that the regulatory boards are dominated by people from the profession they regulate--on the rationale that nonpractitioners don't know enough. But aside from some usefulness in terms of discipline, he says, the regulatory boards tend to serve business rather than public interest. As he puts it, the best test of the competency of a barber is whether he is able to attract and keep customers. By that test, the guy who learned his trade in an Army barracks may be better than his licensed competitor who has the required amount of professional training but who nonetheless cuts a lousy head of hair.