Pretty Smart Healthy Privilege

In our social world, people who are prettier (or hotter) can wear a wider range of clothing and still be seen as socially acceptable. For example, when less pretty people wear especially form-fitting or revealing clothes, they are likely to face social disapproval. They can’t “pull it off.”

Similarly, people who are smarter (or wittier) can talk in conversation about a wider range of topics. If you are not clever or witty, and you bring up a sensitive topic, you are likely to seem awkward and inappropriate, and induce social disapproval. But if you are clever or witty, you can often bring up such subjects in a way that makes people around you laugh and approve.

People who are healthier also have a wider range of socially acceptable activities. People who try to join a group hike or club dance, but who don’t have the energy or coordination to keep up with others, are often frowned upon.

These are three examples of privilege based on familiar kinds of inequality. Not only are these sorts of privilege quite widely accepted, rarely causing much embarrassment or guilt, but we often go out of our way to celebrate and revel in them. In fashion runways, lecture halls, and sporting events we select the most pretty smart healthy people we have, and give them extra attention and approval, thereby increasing social inequality resulting from differences in these features.

An even more dramatic example is inequality based on species. Humans today are gaining huge advantages relative to other species. And most people seem quite okay with celebrating and encouraging these advantages.

When you hear concerns expressed about privilege or inequality, you don’t usually hear these features mentioned. Instead the focus is more often on inequalities tied to income, parental wealth, dominant vs. marginal cultures and ethnicities, rich vs. poor nations, or dominant vs. marginal gender or sexual preferences and styles. Many people seem to find it quite easy to get worked up over privilege and inequality tied to those features.

Now while I can sorta empathize with such resentment and indignation, they don’t feel much more compelling to me that related feelings about the privileges of pretty, smart, or healthy people. Or even humans relative to other species. So while I could sort get behind efforts to mildly reduce the worst extremes caused by all forms of privilege and inequality (or by total inequality, weighing all things), I can’t get behind efforts to focus much more on some forms relative to others.

I have tried to make sense of why people treat these things differently. For example, people seem more concerned about the kinds of inequality that concerned their distant forager ancestors. People seem more eager to express indignation about kinds if inequality would more support more easy grabbing. And people seem more suspicious of inequality resulting from more opaque larger-scale social processes (like labor markets), rather than from more transparent biological and smaller-scale social processes.

But none of these explanations seem to me good reasons to actually worry much more about these kinds of privilege and inequality. Yes disapproved processes like wars, slavery, and theft have contributed substantially to some cultures or sexual styles becoming dominant in our world. But disapproved processes also contribute substantially to some people becoming prettier, smarter, or healthier in our world. And in neither case am I willing to conclude that disapproved processes are the overwhelming cause of such inequality.

As things are counted in today’s political calculus, this apparently makes me a “conservative,” in that I’m less concerned about the sorts of inequalities that greatly concern “liberals.” But I see this less as taking a political position than as remaining uncertain – until I see a good reason to care differently about different kinds of inequality, I’m going to consider them as similar. I see this as like being agnostic about religion. Some people consider a religious agonistic as taking a strong position against religion, and as being almost the same as an atheist. But I think it is worth distinguishing people who take a position against a common view, from people who are uncertain about that view.

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  • http://introductorymicroeconomics.com/Pod/ James D Miller

    The most important type of inequality is between minds that have had a chance to exist and minds that haven’t.

    • http://overcomingbias.com RobinHanson

      And people seem quite comfortable with accepting that inequality. Philosophers have even raised that comfort to a moral principle.

      • consider

        Miller and Hanson… Just ridiculous on many levels.

      • http://juridicalcoherence.blogspot.com/ Stephen Diamond

        If you can accept that existence is “good,” why can’t you accept that only existing things count morally? They are different assumptions, but equally arbitrary.

        [Shouldn’t you folks who think existence is great be procreating like rabbits?]

      • unanimous

        I do procreate like a rabbit.

  • Oscar Cunningham

    “income, parental wealth, dominant vs. marginal cultures and ethnicities, rich vs. poor nations, or dominant vs. marginal gender or sexual preferences and styles” are inequalities that can be fixed by zero-sum reallocation of humanity’s resources (in these cases either money or various “rights”). Whereas there is no way of redistributing prettiness, smarts, or healthiness within a population.

    So the inequalities which people care about happen to be the same as the ones where something can be done about them. I don’t know why this is, but I don’t think it’s a coincidence.

    • http://overcomingbias.com RobinHanson

      “Rights” are hardly sufficient to end inequalities due to marginal cultures. You can compensate as in affirmative action, but you can also compensate for pretty, smart, healthy effects.

      • IMASBA

        The type of inequalities we care most about tend to strongly amplify the consequences of the other inequalities. Reducing economic inequality automatically DOES reduce the inequality caused by appearance or intelligence as well, and by quite a lot I’d wager.

        Also the inequalities we do not care about as much are smaller in magnitude (and limited) and their distribution is less inequal. In the area of beauty the 99th percentile doesn’t have much on the 95th percentile compared to the difference between those percentiles in the area of financial wealth. there are also limits to how beautiful one can be, while one can keep accumulating money exponentially.

      • Ken Arromdee

        There are limits to how male or white you can be and those still count as privileges.

      • IMASBA

        White privilege comes from the use of money and coalition connections, not from the color of the skin itself. There’s no inherent advantage to it (like there is with increased intelligence, strength or health) and it doesn’t give an automatic/instinctual advantage through other humans either (as with beauty).

        In a forager society any group trying to attach a privilege to an ethnicity would literally have to fight to the death to maintain that privilege and wouldn’t be able to project their privilege very far outside of their own group.

      • Ken Arromdee

        The exact same thing you’re saying for white skin is also true of being good-looking. There’s no inherent advantage to it like there is for intelligence. Beauty privilege comes from the fact that people who are good-looking have greater access to money and connections.

        And while you can argue there’s an instinctive aversion to ugly people, there’s also an instinctive aversion to members of an out-group, making white privilege really quite similar.

      • IMASBA

        The instinctual aversion to members of an “out-group” is/was really not that strong in a forager society, least of all if the out-group is based on ethnicity. In fact even early agrarian societies didn’t care much for ethnicity. Does that make taking advantage of your good looks more fair? No, but it does make it far harder to suppress, and guess what, our society indeed has unfavorable ideas about people who use their looks to get things.

      • Ken Arromdee

        I’m not talking about people using their looks to get things any more than you are talking about people who say “hire me, because I’m white”. I’m talking about it passively happening to people without them having to use anything, like the 1.8% difference in income per inch of height, or the halo effect for more attractive people. We don’t have unfavorable ideas about people benefitting from those.

      • IMASBA

        Actually we do have unfavorable ideas about that, it’s just that these advantages are often hidden, still that doesn’t keep us from spreading rumours behind their backs about how they got where they are now, even if it’s by passive use of traits.

        For personal relations we make an exception, apparently we find freedom of instinctual choice of association more important, even when it’s about ethnicity, unless you explicitly state you want nothing to do with a certain group, then it’s a perfect opportunity for others to signal their devotion to equality but to be honest it’s also really more restrictive than passive discrimination: if you prefer to have tall friends you might still have friends who are not tall but excel at some other trait you like (the majority of people have been blessed with at least one popular quality), so not all short people are left outside your group, when you actively exclude all short people from your group you increase the number of people you exclude.

      • http://overcomingbias.com RobinHanson

        You are quite wrong to think the 99th beauty percentile doesn’t have big advantages over the 95th.

      • IMASBA

        Do you really think the difference is anywhere near comparable to the difference for those same percentiles in wealth? I’d wager that except for some rare situations (like being a lingerie model), random noise almost completely destroys any advantages beyond the 95th percentile and I think that goes for most of the inequalities that were already present for our forager ancestors.

      • Charlene Cobleigh Soreff

        Can you point to evidence for that? I find that quite a surprising claim.

      • http://juridicalcoherence.blogspot.com/ Stephen Diamond

        I’m surprised you’re unwilling to defend this unusual claim. Perhaps it’s because inequality is not one of your “focus areas.” Not that I disagree.

        [My own impression: the 99th percentile in beauty isn’t greatly advantaged over the 95th–but neither is the top 1% in wealth greatly advantaged over the top 1%. (“Occupy” could have with as much justification but less effect spoken of the 5%.)]

        The power of wealth is concentrated much further in the (apt) right tail of the distribution. The 99.99 percentile. But the personal advantages of unequal wealth are far more widely distributed, extending to the top 20% (the natural allies of the political Right).

        Therefore, wealth inequality is in itself comparably advantaging as beauty inequality. [Supporting your point: the suffering of the ugly is well told, but who advocates monetary compensation.]

        But I don’t expect anything comparable in the right tail of beauty. Could anyone (or any social process) discriminate the difference between the 99.9 percentile for beauty and its 99.99 percentile. But the difference in wealth (and most importantly, in power–particularly coalitional power) between these percentiles is huge.

      • consider

        I have a hunch Hanson is correct here but probably more so for women. Almost all would consider a woman in the 5% of looks as quite attractive, but I bet only the 1% would be considered extremely attractive or “stunning” – a major asset at interview or promotion time.

      • IMASBA

        It’s probably the difference between getting 3 free drinks in the bar and getting 4. You’re robbed of a lot of opportunies if your among the ugliest 25-33% but at the high end the advantages suffer from severe diminishing returns, quite different from wealth inequality. I think the same can be said about height inequality as well: as a man it sucks being 1.60m, but being 1.95m doesn’t give you much advantage over being 1.90m.

    • Charlene Cobleigh Soreff

      Parts of healthiness (notably lack of trace nutrients, and safe drinking water) can have inequalities fixed. It isn’t exactly redistributing, but more a question of fixing some relatively cheap problems.

  • sym

    “These are three three familiar examples of privilege based on kinds of inequality.”

    I don’t think they are. Isn’t a privilege something fundamentally created through a statute? Being more good looking or more intelligent, or wealthier – as long as the wealth is not the result of some cronyism or state intervention – are only advantages, not privileges.

    Calling such things “privileges” bakes into them the idea of corruption, and subtly leads the argument towards equalitarianism. We wouldn’t want some children to be privileged, would we? But if they are merely advantaged, and these advantages are not the result of unfair choices or behaviours, then we might just have to accept the situation, instead of asking for “progressive” legislation.

    • http://overcomingbias.com RobinHanson

      I’m pretty sure “privilege” is used today in a way that doesn’t refer only to advantages produced by statute.

    • abmodality

      This is the original “white privilege” essay: http://amptoons.com/blog/files/mcintosh.html
      Most of the things mentioned don’t have anything to with laws.

  • ET

    Well you can have plastic surgery, lose weight and make money. You can’t really change your gender, skin colour or ethnicity so I wouldn’t say what you are discussing are actually privileges.

    • Ken Arromdee

      Arguing that there’s no beauty privilege because you can have plastic surgery is like arguing that we don’t need to care about discrimination in favor of Christians because people can always convert to Christianity. Plastic surgery is a pretty major thing. Furthermore, you can’t reasonably change your height or body type, even if you can alter your face.

  • Paul Gowder

    Robin, what you’re missing is the difference between a brute inequality in benefits or “stuff” (a lack of identical treatment) and an inequality that results in social subordination (treatment of some people as less-than-equals). The less pretty or the less smart or whatever are not the objects of a system of state and private acts that expresses the notion that they are worth less than the more pretty or the more smart. People of color, the poor, women in many instances, etc. are.

    For an explanation of the two different concepts of inequality in play, see this article of mine starting at pg. 1072: http://blogs.law.uiowa.edu/ilr/wp-content/uploads/2014/02/A2_Gowder.pdf — also, look at Elizabeth Anderson’s old article “What is the Point of Equality?” (Ethics 2000)

    • http://overcomingbias.com RobinHanson

      I’m pretty sure that the less pretty, smart, healthy in our world see themselves as being treated as worth less. Worth quite a bit less actually.

      • Lukas

        I think if you looked at:

        – difference in rate of black vs white people being shot by police officers

        – difference in rate of attractive vs unattractive people being shot by police officers

        You’d see that one is a significantly bigger problem. This demonstrates to me the limitations of reasoning from first principles.

      • oldoddjobs

        Bizarre!

      • Ronfar

        I’ve heard that ugly people tend to be found guilty in criminal trials more often than attractive people. (I’ve also heard that ugliness and criminal behavior actually are positively correlated.)

    • Ken Arromdee

      By your reasoning, being less willing to hire people of the wrong race or sex would not be an example of privilege for the favored race or sex, in the same way that being less willing to hire the short or ugly is not privilege.

  • David

    For what it’s worth, I see a lot of discussion in social-justice-type communities about “ableist” language, about “fat-shaming,” about “neurotypicality,” and other similar things that seem to amount to concern with what you’re referring to here as “pretty/smart/healthy privilege.

    And there’s a lot of discussion among vegetarians, vegans, animal rights activists, and the like about species inequalities.

    But, sure, it’s not universal, and the “let’s not worry about anything unless we’re equally worried about everything!” line of argument has been around for ages.

  • guest

    I was always more jealous and intimidated by good looks and social skills of socially close people than their wealth. Getting compensated for my average social skills and below average looks would be like an additional insult to my self-worth. I can’t even imagine how would such a scheme would work in real life.

  • Greg Partch

    You’ll all remember the indian ocean quake/tsunami of 2004. Some 230,000 died in the destruction, and close to 2 million people were displaced. A terrible, terrible tragedy. And yet, there was no military response to it! No political outrage, just a sad, resigned effort to clean up and move on.

    Compare this to 9/11. The combined fatalities that resulted from 9/11 were two orders of magnitude less than the number of dead in Indonesia, Thailand, Sri Lanka, et al, and yet, the outrage following 9/11 was inescapable.

    I was living in New York at the time and at dinner parties I would informally poll my fellow guests about which was ethically worse: 2,500 dead on 9/11 or 230,000 dead in the tsunami. I can’t remember one person arguing that the oceanquake was ethically worse. For the OBVIOUS reasons. Because 9/11 was conceived by conscious human agents, who planned and hoped for destruction, while the Tsunami was the product of non-mental, non-conscious processes, and thus, not avoidable.

    It is rational to dispute, argue with, be outraged at, and even dispatch armies against conscious beings. Not so with “acts of god”.

    Economic inequality is by semi-conscious design. Human beings built the system which produces it, and it results in very anti-utilitarian effects. A vastly disproportionate number of humans are rendered poor by capitalism against the tiny minority of humans who are rendered rich. Poor people didn’t democratically elect to be poor, and nor were the rich appointed to be so by the poor. Moreover, most of the smart people who study the model have seen that the rich are exploiting tropes like “democracy” and “equality” as smokescreens to disguise what amounts to theft…

    So poverty is eminently more avoidable than ugliness, or awkwardness. Nature distributes physical gifts, not government.

    Therefore, institutional, man-made inequality is more ethically objectionable than the natural, genetic variety.

    Perhaps that will knock you off the fence?

    • Ken Arromdee

      Nature distributes race and gender just like it distributes ugliness and awkwardness. Yet surely you think there is something wrong with economic inequality based on race or gender.

      (You could point out that race and gender only have economic effects because of the actions of human beings who treat people differently depending on those traits, but of course being ugly also only has economic effects because of the actions of other human beings who treat people differently.)

      • Greg partch

        I absolutely think there is something wrong with economic inequality based on race or gender

      • oldoddjobs

        I “absolutely” couldn’t care less about economic inequality based on race or gender. Guess you’re just morally superior to me, eh? Now there’s one form of inequality you probably don’t mind….

      • Peter David Jones

        I absolutely couldn’t care less about economic inequality based on the habit of posting to blogs under the name “oddjobs”, and when I get round to implementing a well-ordered society, I will make you a galley slave.

        Of course you can have no rational objection.

      • oldoddjobs

        1. It’s “oldoddjobs”, are you blind?

        2. What online nicknames have to do with economic inequality is still a mystery, despite your pioneering efforts.

        3. I wasn’t suggesting that all forms of inequality were objectionable to Greg.

        There, glad to have cleared all that up.

      • Ken Arromdee

        You absolutely do… problem is, by your own reasoning you shouldn’t. You said that inequality based on ugliness isn’t a concern because it’s distributed by nature. Yet race and gender are distributed by nature and you think that inequality based on that is a concern. Why the difference?

      • Peter David Jones

        @Ken

        Race and gender per se are distributed by nature, but nature doesnt distribute the status associations and resultant disutiliy. If nature hits you with a lightning bolt, that’s a a direct delivery of disutility, but it takes a human being to decide that certain races and genders don’t get to vote or ride in the front of the bus.

        Looks and brains work rather differently, because only allowing smart people to be doctors isn’t arbitrary in the way that only allowing one gender to vote is.

        People don’t object to inequality per se, and rightly don’t. People object to artificial inequalities that don’t have any justification better than “it suits us, the privileged”.

      • Ken Arromdee

        “Looks and brains work rather differently, because only allowing smart
        people to be doctors isn’t arbitrary in the way that only allowing one
        gender to vote is.”

        What? That’s true for brains. It’s certainly not true for looks.

      • Peter David Jones

        That depends onn what you are using looks a shorthand for. It isn’t arbitrary that .GL people get the modelling jobs,

      • Ken Arromdee

        Good-looking people (and taller people) get the better jobs everywhere. It’s not limited to those jobs for which good looks are actually a job requirement.

    • http://overcomingbias.com RobinHanson

      I think you are pointing to the opaque large-scale social causes that I talked about.

      • Greg Partch

        Yes I am. And I’m saying, fairly unequivocally, that there’s a good reason for people to be more suspicious of labor market inequality than the smaller scale inequities of physical beauty, strength, health, and so on. Because it isn’t impartial. Nature can’t play favorites–it isn’t bribable–and therefore you still see rich people siring retarded children. Which is the same for everybody. But success within any market can be purchased, even though we all play lip service to the idea of an ultimate meritocracy, which cannot exist… Everybody knows this is the case, or at the very least, strongly inuit that labor markets are a rigged game

      • http://overcomingbias.com RobinHanson

        As a professional economists, with a relatively deep understanding of labor markets, I disagree with your judgment that they are primarily determined by disapproved processes.

      • greg partch

        Fair enough. But as you well know, lots professional economists disagree with you. Piketty’s book is topping the best seller list

      • Peter David Jones

        I don’t see Greg saying or implying that objectionable process are the PRIMARY sources of inequality of outcome. While we are strawmanning :-), I disagree with the real .ir imaginary judgement that there is no unfairness whatsoever. You could hardly have a more blatant case of gaming the system than private education..,if it doesn’t produce improved outcomes, it is a waste of money,

      • http://overcomingbias.com RobinHanson

        Private education producing better skilled workers isn’t at all a process I’d disapprove of.

      • http://juridicalcoherence.blogspot.com/ Stephen Diamond

        True, but it’s not the root issue here, which is actually hereditary wealth and opportunities. (I think this elicits mixed intuitions, depending upon whether you asses it from the point of view of justifying the benefits conferred or the right to confer them.)

      • Peter David Jones

        The hereditary principle is indeed the problem, I don’t mind the kind of private education that consist of a professional buying training for themselves out of money they earnt.

        My intuition is that if one person can accumulate wealth though unfairly acquired privileges, another can fairly take it back off them – I should keep what I earn no longer applies if uncle Charles got me a seat in the board.

        And it’s the hereditary principle that leads to inefficiency, since it is neither meritocratic nor competitive. (Conservatives try to serve two incompatible principled..a right if free entry to markets, and an untrammeled right to property)

        And if buying opportunity is OK, why not be open about it? Why not just bribe employers, instead of discretely flashing the old school tie?

      • Peter David Jones

        Private education is better than, for instance, no education, but directing educational resources towards those who can afford them rather than those who can benefit from them is not optimal.

        Buying improved prospects through an old school tie network is a grab, just as much bribing an employer to hire your son, and what can be grabbed can be grabbed back. If you want a grab feee society, look at sides of the equation.

      • oldoddjobs

        Robin, you’re an economics professor. Does this not strike you as worthy of rebuttal?

        “A vastly disproportionate number of humans are rendered poor by
        capitalism against the tiny minority of humans who are rendered rich.”

        Or should one pass over flagrantly absurd remarks in tolerant silence?

      • http://overcomingbias.com RobinHanson

        If I created the expectation that I never let a blog comment that I disagreed with pass without expressing my disagreement, I’d never have time for anything else.

      • oldoddjobs

        Yeah, I know. It just struck me as egregious. Guess I was looking for a chuckle, too.

  • IMASBA

    Not sure how sexual preference would be a form of inequality. I do think that some of these things do work against each other: our cultural belief that it is better to be liked for your brain than for your body is probably in some part a counterweight to our instinctual reverence of people who mostly excel at being beautiful or physically strong. And yes, we are biased to see more of a problem in forms of inequalities that did not exist for our forager ancestors, this is somewhat justified since we know their world was not a dystopian dictatorship and we therefore know that the oldest forms of inequality tend to be manageable, which brings me to the point I’m going to make in my next two paragraphs.

    I think a case can also be made that nature takes care of some inequalities rather well. There are definite limits to how beautiful or smart you can be and the individuals who are lucky with their genes are not really that rare that they can form a closed-off elite. Research suggests that less-beautiful people innately have lower standards beauty-wise when selecting a mate, it seems our culture is making less-beautiful people feel worse than they need to. A reign of some dominant family also has a high probability of being spontaneously challenged by someone else, born in a family that did not previously exhibit the dominant feature.

    Contrast this to inequalities we do care about. Those are typically unbounded (in principle there’s no reason why someone can’t become a trillionaire and a few good family connections can make you the president of a superpower, sure it helps to be handsome but it helps a lot less and there are many more handsome people than extremely well-connected or rich people and at least a handsome baby can be born to ugly parents), can cause runaway dominance and are restricted to a tiny elite that can easily close itself off. I’m also fairly certain that the inequalities we care most about are those that help exaggerate the consequences of other inequalities: whereas at first being handsome might at most help make you chief of your small clan, you can now, with money and connections use it to accumulate much more power over millions of people, so these inequalities “infect” other inequalities with their dangerous unboundedness. It seems to me that not finding these things reason to be more worried about one type of inequalities does betray some kind of political position. Plus some inequalities are a lot easier to fix than others.

    • oldoddjobs

      Not caring that a handsome person has a better chance of becoming rich “betray(s) some kind of political position”? One of the bad ones, no doubt.

      • IMASBA

        No, not caring that some forms of inequality are a lot stronger than others betrays some kind of political position. I didn’t talk about “good” or “bad” political positions, it was Robin who posited that he was above politicial positions in this case.

  • Cahokia

    I’m surprised that you would write about inequalities of beauty, health, and intelligence without considering how society’s perceptions of these disparities will change once we develop the biotechnological means to ameliorate them.

    At that point reducing these inequalities may become integral to liberal and social democratic discourse.

    • lump1

      But let’s not pretend that biotechnological amelioration will be an instrument of leveling these inequalities. Instead, it will be an instrument to magnify the big scary inequality, the inequality of wealth.

      • Charlene Cobleigh Soreff

        That depends – mostly agreed, but some biotechnological amelioration _saturates_: Consider vaccines. For e.g. polio the vaccine is cheap enough and effective enough that the bulk of the population is vaccinated – even woldwide. If someone can pay to be vaccinated a dozen times it doesn’t matter. It wouldn’t help them.

      • lump1

        OK, this is a good point. I have a feeling that in industrialized countries, health outcomes of the different wealth brackets are converging. This undercuts what I said earlier. I said it because it’s just so easy for me to imagine legitimate life extensions and various biological capacity extensions. Viagra is an early example, but I’m picturing something like Brain Viagra. Those things will matter, and their availability/quality will not saturate.

      • IMASBA

        Health outcomes used to converge for a while but already we’re seeing the welfare state squeek under the weight of medical science advancing faster than the economy grows. It’s really a matter of time before a new advancement appears that really enhances/extends life in a major way but is too expensive for the common man and too expensive for the welfare state to provide to everyone. Future gene therapy and bionics will probably fit that description and the rich might be able to use them to build up an unbridgable advantage. There’s really no competing with a billionaire who can buy himself an IQ of 400 and who’s children will inherit that IQ through his DNA. The only way of preventing this is to lower economic inequality severely and permanently in the near future.

      • Cahokia

        ” It’s really a matter of time before a new advancement appears that
        really enhances/extends life in a major way but is too expensive for the
        common man and too expensive for the welfare state to provide to
        everyone.”

        I doubt it.

        The common man spends the vast bulk of his income on non-health related expenses.

        If such a major advance occurs, it should be relatively open to the middle classes.

      • IMASBA

        Why? We’re already seeing it with advanced prosthetics: they are too expensive to give to every amputee so only a select few (rich people and veterans who are lucky to be selected to test prototypes) get them. Artificially grown organs (from one’s own stem cells) will probably be the first things that are too expensive for the middle class and the welfare state and probide significant benefis to anyone rich enough to buy make use of them. Or think of a mechanical heart that with the pumping capability of an athlete’s heart and that is immune to disease. Genetic manipulation of sperm and eggs can yield superior offspring but would be very expensive to the parents.

    • http://overcomingbias.com RobinHanson

      How disparities will change in the future isn’t very relevant to understanding our reactions to them today.

  • Robby Bensinger

    The disability rights movement writes about the unfair treatment of people based on their health and intelligence. The animal rights movement writes about mistreatment of non-human animals. People associated with feminism and social justice often write about the unfairness of existing beauty standards.* (Often the latter overlaps with criticizing health standards as well — e.g., ‘fat-shaming’.) Disability rights, animal rights, and feminism / SJ are all associated with liberalism, not with conservatism.

    * Though it wouldn’t surprise me if feminists write more often about gender-based double standards than about the general unfairness of rewarding people for being beautiful.

    As for why those causes are relatively neglected, I suspect that when an inequality can’t be ascribed to an agent’s actions, this exacerbates status quo bias. This would also explain why the people who make the loudest stir about poverty, LGBT rights, religious freedoms, etc. are often those who are most committed to the hypothesis that there is a group of human-shaped evildoers out there actively making things worse.

    A narrative like that could take hold for the neglected causes, but it hasn’t happened yet. E.g., Peter Singer certainly isn’t the Marx of animal rights, and there isn’t an easily-identified organized political campaign against animal right in the way there’s one against LGBT rights.

    • Peter David Jones

      Objecting to inequalities isn’t a.passive reaction to an objective state of affairs, it’s an attempt to change things. Therefore, people object more vociferously to smaller manmade injustices than to larger natural ones. A politiciian may or may not listen; a tsunami definitely won’t. There are of course awkward edge cases. It’s sad that unattractive people are lonely, and its not exactly an inevitable act of nature, but it’s not exactly something you can legislate away.

      • http://overcomingbias.com RobinHanson

        All of these unequal treatments are man-made. Some may seem justified, but all are chosen.

      • Peter David Jones

        Tsunamis and unattractiveness are not chosen.

      • IMASBA

        I’d say attractiveness still only provides benefits through human agents. Intelligence, physical strength and health are things that provide advantages on their own: they really do make you objectively better at doing things even if no one gave you special treatment.

      • Peter David Jones

        Attractiveness has a cultural component, but is still less arbitrary than allowing only one gender to vote.

      • IMASBA

        Yes, there is a difference in magnitude, a better analogy to beauty inequality would be to give one gender 0.8 votes per person instead of 1, with the option of getting back that 0.2 vote difference if you are on the high end in some other quality (intelligence or wealth for example).

      • IMASBA

        To further improve on the analogy there would have to be a sliding scale: 0.8 base votes for a girlie girl, 0.99 for a lesbian marine 😉

        Oh and have testosteron pills available at every store for $5.99 (analogy to cosmetics) and women would have to have an instinctual desire to be the most manly they can be.

      • Ken Arromdee

        Unattractiveness is not chosen in exactly the same way that race and gender are not chosen.

      • spank

        Physical unattractiveness was chosen by the parents of the unattractive person, not necessarily by the unattractive person. A choice was made, just not by the individual. An unattractive personality is indeed chosen.

      • unanimous

        A subconsious tendancy to treat beatiful people differently to ugly people is built into us. We have evolved this instinct so that a priority for survival is present. It is not entirely chosen, although the way we behave in light of those instincts involes some choice. Our species survives better with this instinct – it reduces the amount of conflict in some situations.

        Ownership is a society’s limitation on who can use the owned thing, and wealthy people have less limitations on what they can use. The rules about how people get to own things are culturally determined, as is ownership itself, and these rules are subject to change via debate. The associated habits are embedded into us during our upbringing, but we have evolved to debate cultural rules – it is part of the way our species sustains and adapts culture.

        I think that explains why there is more discusion about wealth inequality than beaty inequality. There are probably explanations for the other forms of inequality also. I don’t think it is natural to treat all modes of inequality equally. You are probably a bit strange in this reguard, but your unusual views are why I like reading what you write.

  • http://juridicalcoherence.blogspot.com/ Stephen Diamond

    We care about a type of inequality when it’s a salient point for coalition formation. Primeval coalitions (presumably) developed against “big men” because power corrupts (it is used self-servingly).

    Economic inequality is undesirable because the wealthy will inevitably undertake self-interested coalition politics. This will distort society’s priorities to favor the interests of the dominant coalition; and the greater the inequality, the greater the distortion. (E.g., the “military-industrial complex.”)

    Compare this with inequality in physical attractiveness. On an individual basis, it might rival wealth as a source of (even) political prospects. We can all imagine societal changes that benefit or harm the relative position of the beautiful, but the beautiful don’t form strong coalitions.

    That is to say, only a narrow class of “privileges” disturbs us, but only a narrow class of privileges (much the same class) creates the societal injury today, for much the same reason as it did primevally.

    • Peter David Jones

      There’s two things you can do with powerful coalitions: break them up, or join them. That may be the origin of political styles.

    • http://overcomingbias.com RobinHanson

      All of these traits could be the basis for coalition formation. If such coalitions aren’t formed, that is another puzzle to explain.

      • http://juridicalcoherence.blogspot.com/ Stephen Diamond

        So?

        You seem to be changing the subject. You were trying to justify agnosticism about whether equality is desirable. But the same evolutionary conjectures (with a more theoretically congruent framing in terms of coalitions) reveals that your agnosticism founders on the effect of inequality on the coalitional behavior and prospects of the moneyed class.

      • Peter David Jones

        Some kinds of coalition and privilege are bad for economic efficiency: equality as a desirable end in itself is not the only.

      • Friendly-HI

        Beauty as a basis for coalitions? Seems like easy puzzle to solve the question why people don’t form beauty coalitions: If I’m ridiculously handsome what would I gain from trading the pond where I’m the big fish for a pond where I’m an average fish by joining some form of coalition for the beautiful? I would lose my comparative advantage, if anything I would want average uglies to accompany me to the local meat market to make use of the contrast effect.

  • http://barrkel.blogspot.com/ barrkel

    I don’t even agree with your priors – your initial examples. Your post has almost no basis in rationality. It’s just opinion – and that leaves me wondering if it’s self-serving.

    On that note, I’m out. I’ve been reading this blog for over 5 years, but this will be the last post.

    • SanguineEmpiricist

      This seems relatively extreme if what causes this has basis in this post.

    • Fellas

      No basis in rationality? That you can say that proves the point. Or do you live in a magic land where tall, good looking, people don’t get *far* better treatment and, as a result, far more reward?

  • Peter David Jones

    This is a unusually clear example of a tractable philosophical problem: the surface semantics are misleading. Complaints about inequality and privilege aren’t complaints about inequality and privilege per se, they are about unearned privilege and unjust inequality …. they are complaints about fairness. Likewise, it is not the case that the Right simply don’t notice inequality as a fact, it is that, as the party of the winners, they evaluate it as just.

    • IMASBA

      “it is not the case that the Right simply don’t notice inequality as a fact, it is that, as the party of the winners, they evaluate it as just.”

      That may be true for the leaders of the Right, but their supporters do, on average, underestimate economic inequality a lot more than supporters of the Left, they also assume much smaller disadvantages to not being a straight male of the “right” ethnicity and religion than do supporters of the Left, though of course on that subject it’s much harder to get objective numbers to see who’s closer to the truth.

      On a side note I’m curious how much Robin knows about economic inequality and its rise, as an economist he should be very well informed about such things but him saying that it’s no worse than beauty-inequality suggests he either underestimates economic inequality or overestimates beauty-inequality.

    • http://overcomingbias.com RobinHanson

      “unearned” is another way of saying “caused by disapproved processes”.

      • Peter David Jones

        Disapproval is descriptive. Injustice is normative and explains disapproval.

      • http://juridicalcoherence.blogspot.com/ Stephen Diamond

        What are norms other than what we happen to approve?

      • Peter David Jones

        Norms aren’t personal likes and dislikes, because they need to apply across groups of people. Children learn early on that “it’s not fair” is a more potent shaper of behaviour than “I want”.

    • Ken Arromdee

      Any inequality or privilege that someone has due to beauty (or height) is unearned privilege and unjust privilege as well, unless it’s one of the handful of situations where it’s actually relevant, like trying to get a job as a model.

  • Evan Gaensbauer

    I don’t have a complete solution to the posed conundrum, but I have some thoughts which may add pieces to the puzzle we’re trying to complete here.

    1) Race, gender, sexual orientation, wealth, family, and clan association are axes of difference among humans which, throughout history, states have explicitly made discriminatory policies based upon. If at all, states, historically, have been much less likely to legislate on the basis of health, intelligence, and beauty. Discriminatory policies based upon the latter group may not have been encoded because such features are more randomly distributed among the populace, and thus more difficult to legislate around. Also, societies may not perceive the need to legislate on the basis of intelligence, health, and beauty, because those are features that our social groups automatically select to favor, and no elites are in particular threatened by an uprising, of e.g., all the smart people uniting.

    2) Intelligence, health, and beauty are less discrete than other categories mentioned. While, e.g., sex is often just a male/female binary, intelligence, health, and beauty exist on a sliding scale. If most people cluster around an average level of intelligence, health, and/or beauty, they may not be disproportionately favored for their traits, but neither are they being disproportionately penalized. This may lead to less demand among the majority for affirmative action along those lines.

    3) Just because, e.g., non-human animals are suffering at the hands of all humans as a civilization more than humans of sexual minorities are suffering within human societies doesn’t make the subjective suffering sexual minorities experience any lesser. Reducing the unfairness various superficial traits create within human societies can happen on a gradient.

    4) Being of a certain clan, race, class, or other marginalized group allows one to more easily identify others belonging to the same under-privileged group. So, such groups may be able to band together to disrupt a society more readily. If you’re an ugly, stupid, and/or unhealthy person losing whatever you want in society, it’s more difficult to identify other ugly, stupid, and/or unhealthy people to start a movement with.

    5) If it’s easier to spot others who are under-privileged for the same reason as oneself to build a movement, than the individuals can band together to each raise their individual profiles in society. Maybe groups rallying to diffuse privilege in the name of justice is merely signaling; perhaps all the individuals can identify themselves more easily to better cooperate to each of their own selfish ends.

    • http://overcomingbias.com RobinHanson

      1. Yes state action can make a feature more salient, but clearly features like income attract attention for other reasons. 2. Income also exists on a sliding scale. Pretty and smart can have very high variance. 4. All of these traits could be the basis of group formation. 5. They all can be made easy to spot.

  • George McGowan

    Perhaps we care less about ‘intrinsic’ inequalities as they’re more lasting? We can’t grab them from people, so the people who are rich in them always remain rich – they’re always good allies to have. So we don’t want to offend such people.

  • Joshua Brulé

    My instinct is to rail (only) against privilege that looks like rent-seeking.

    Historically, at least, some “privilege” turning out to be rent-seeking sounds very plausible to me. For example, the all of the special privileges afforded people living in the host nation over people living in colonies during mercantilism.

    As for the concerns expressed about privilege or inequality today, I’m generally skeptical. The “rich vs poor nation” one sounds semi-plausible; I’m not so sure about the others. (Of course, I’m not a trained economist, so I’m not very confident about my analysis either.)

  • lump1

    One hypothesis: Health inequality, beauty inequality and intelligence inequality are stable. The first is probably shrinking in industrialized countries. Maybe all of them are. Thus they’re off our radar, because they’re behaving. Income/wealth inequality is growing, and this puts it on our radar. If health outcomes inequality were growing in the same way, where the lives of some subclass were orders of magnitude longer than the mean, we might worry about it too. Same goes for runaway intelligence inequality.

    Different hypothesis: Wealth is an instrument of reward, and a kneejerk sense of justice chafes at rewards that are uncoupled from merit. If we routinely paid people with life extension, health inequalities might worry us more.

    • IMASBA

      yes, the fact that health, beauty and intelligence inequalities are bounded and stable probably plays a great role.

    • Doug

      Wealth is only unbounded and differs in order of magnitude if you’re objective function is related to how many dollars you have. In reality, that doesn’t matter. The only reason having more dollars matters is because they allow you to enjoy a higher standard of living.

      And in that sense differences in material living conditions are very bounded. The person making $10 million a year, certainly doesn’t enjoy a hundred times higher utility than the person making $100 thousand. And there’s virtually no difference between the deca-millionaire and the deca-billionaire.

      Say I did the same for beauty. Give everyone a “attractiveness score”, and with every standard deviation the score goes up by a factor of a hundred. The most attractive people would have scores in the hundreds of millions, while the average would only have a few points.

      Would that make any difference, because now attractiveness is unbounded? Of course not. The number’s only an abstract concept, what matters is the direct impact being attractive has on your life. Same with wealth, the “unbounded quantity” is the abstract concept of money, while the concrete implications of material living standards are highly bounded and stable.

      • IMASBA

        $10 million is already an increase in utility that the smartest brain or the most chiseled jaw line won’t give you if you don’t also have a lot of luck with other things, but, and this is where it goes beyond personal utility, with $10 billion you can affect global politics and crush/absorb start ups that threaten your business interests, with $10 trillion you’d be de facto god emperor of mankind, that might not make your life much better than it already was but it can surely make the lives of poor people worse. If your income is more than $40 trillion per year you literally have more power than the rest of the world combined, of course even before that point you’d be able to hire enough mercenaries to conquer the world. Less drastically example (and scarily realistic): the richer you are the more power you have over charities and businesses, you could take them over and mandate that they do not help gay people.

        Having a lot of money pretty much guarantees your descendents for several generations will not have to work for anything and will have positions of power if they want to while even if you’re a genius the probability of your child also being a genius is only something like 25% (and 6.25% for your grandchild, and so on).

        Also, I’m not sure why your utility not improving linearly with wealth proves that it’s no different from beauty, beauty seems to run into diminishing utlity return much quicker (at a lower percentile) than wealth so there’s a different in magnitude.

      • Doug

        It seems that the concern you’re focusing on isn’t the unfair distribution of material wealth, but the unfair concentration of power. If that’s the case, individual wealth inequality is largely irrelevant next to institutional size inequality. Even mid-size corporations control more wealth than the richest individuals. Among governments and religions the disparity becomes even more stark. You throw $10 trillion as an insane amount of wealth, but the US government really can marshall that level of resources at will.

        You may object that these entities are merely institutional fictions, they don’t possess a singular will. But large institutions regularly organize themselves in such a way that their focus and mission supersedes any defining individual. The Catholic Church has largely maintained a consistent objective function over dozens of lifetimes and hundreds of leaders. Institutions, like Apple or the Werchmact, can act with more vigor, purpose, and singular drive than the most determined individual. Finally I see no reason to suspect that the will of institutions is more benevolent or less cruel than individuals, wealthy or otherwise, if anything the distribution of responsibility usually leaves very little empathy or compassion.

        If someone’s concerned that there’s an excessive concentration of power in a few hands, then the issue of increasingly wealthy billionaires seems quite secondary. Maybe if trends continue for a century or two, the wealthiest individuals will marshall more resources than the largest institutions, but today you should be concerned with sub-dividing the largest firms, nations and religions.

      • IMASBA

        I am indeed mostly concerned about power inequality, although I’m also concerned about resource distribution and the mechanism of extreme wealth accumulation itself (I don’t think anyone is worth a $100 million income).

        As for corporations, I certainly want to curtail their powers more than they are now. Corporations are run by rich executives and largely owned by rich shareholders. I can’t remember any instance where corporations used their influence against the interests of rich individuals, this points to considerable alignment of their interests. In some ways corporations are ways for the rich to form coalitions (which beautiful barely do).

        I’m also concerned about future consequences of inequality such as transhumanism that’s only available to rich individuals, which would inevitably lead to increased power inequality.

      • http://juridicalcoherence.blogspot.com/ Stephen Diamond

        You may object that these entities are merely institutional fictions, they don’t possess a singular will. But large institutions regularly organize themselves in such a way that their focus and mission supersedes any defining individual.

        Institutions are coalitions; their increasing size reflects the growing
        importance of coalition politics, much amplifying the effects of wealth
        on power.

        [I contend (if I can respond) that the dominating coalition determines the will of an organization. Where the losers readily coordinate against wealth inequality, the wealthy also readily coordinate for wealth inequality. (The last being what Robin ignores.) So, the purpose of the organizations will align with the broad interests a coalition of the wealthy dominators.

        [What would happen when large organizations exist, but there are no individual wealth inequalities? The organizations would (if my assumptions are true) then be without salient broad interests to coordinate around.]

      • lump1

        If you look at old AD&D rulebooks, Gary Gygax tried to compose game rules about the effects of godlike comeliness. IIRC, individuals at the top of the scale could distort truth without detection, bargain lopsided deals, cause infidelity, etc.

        Now imagine that 1% of humans had that kind of godlike comeliness. It would be a very disruptive sort of inequality, and we would definitely worry about it.

        Luckily we don’t have to worry, because as a contingent matter of good luck, there is no way for humans to get godlike beauty. Actual beauty inequality is not very disruptive, so not a cause of great social concern.

        Wealth inequality is different. Contrary to what you say, its effect goes far beyond just determining the standard of living. Wealth can be used to distort institutions, subvert justice, escape regulations… and also, do a great amount of good. There is no godlike comeliness, but tycoon-like wealth gives its owner a curiously similar power to disrupt the world. It’s no wonder that we worry about it.

    • Ken Arromdee

      I’m pretty sure that race and gender aren’t doled out according to merit either. I’m also pretty sure that they are at a stable state in your sense (that the trait itself, isn’t getting less evenly distributed). Of course they result in income inequality and *that* can grow, but the same is true for beauty.

    • Philip Goetz

      “As long as health, beauty and intelligence aren’t doled out according [to] merit,”
      This is an odd thing to say–health, beauty, and intelligence *are* forms of merit. Most people will disagree; but try to define what “merit” is in a way so that healthy or intelligent people don’t have more of it.

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  • Lord

    Conservatives always seem to believe this is about resentment and indignation. If they can’t conceive of any other motivation they are far more clueless and obtuse then they can possibly imagine.

    • IMASBA

      It makes sense from a basic psychological point of view. If you are rich it’s better for your mental health if you believe people mainly get rich through mechanisms that society considers “fair”, so to protect itself your mind will be biased to believe the rich “deserve” their wealth and that leaves only the explanation that poor people are clueless or just jealous. Economic conservatives who are not rich usually believe they’ll be rich one day or that they would have been rich if the role of the state was smaller, these are also self-protection measures of the mind because it shifts away the (painful) blame for unrealized ambitions.

      Now this works the other way around too with leftist anarchists (who believe that the lack of financial success from their “art” is due to “the man”), for example, but it just so happens that reality has a liberal bias: someone who thinks they’re so special that they “deserve” to make 100 times the median income are obviously MORE delusional than those who make half of the median income and think they “deserve” to make the median income (the former group even has to pull out of their asses “fair” mechanisms that would translate limited natural variation of abilities into income ratios on the order of magnitude of hundreds).

  • Salem

    It is much easier for me and my fellow-tribesmen to band together and take your possessions than it is for us to band together and take your beauty, intelligence, height, or health. Therefore there is no point in us forming a coalition against the beautiful, clever, tall or healthy, because what would we gain? But tribal politics being what they are, before we actually carry out our raid, we want to lower your favour in the eyes of the rest of the tribe, test the waters for how strong our coalition really is, etc. So we complain that it’s “unfair” that you have so much stuff, and the tribal gods would be better appeased if my coalition had it instead. If we see there’s not much pushback, we conclude that we can get away with our raid, so we gang up and steal your stuff.
    Similarly, political complaints about inequality are largely intended as an attempted precursor to redistribution, and an attempt to form a coalition between the would-be distributors and the would-be clients. There can be no redistribution of beauty, so there is no possibility of forming a mutually beneficial coalition.

    • Peter David Jones

      We’d complain it is unfair if it was unfair, too..

      Consider a group of starving peasants raiding his Lordship’s castle and opening up his treasuries and granaries. Where did that stuff come from? He hasn’t been growing his own grain,

      By setting my parable in feudal times, I have snuck in the idea that the people at the top are living off the sweat of the people at the bottom. By setting your parable in a hunter gatherer tribes you have snuck in the idea that everyone is earning their resources individually. Where resources came from is a rather important point in relation to what is really unfair or not. What was grabbed, can be grabbed back.

      • IMASBA

        Good point!

      • Salem

        “We’d complain it is unfair if it was unfair, too..”

        No, I don’t think you would. Consider your medieval analogy; people who went around saying “When Adam delved and Eve span…” were strung up. The fact that you are so easily able to co-ordinate against the supposed “powers-that-be” ought to tell you that they aren’t the powers you think they are.

        “Where resources came from is a rather important point in relation to what is really unfair or not.”

        Agreed. So why the talk of inequality as opposed to wrongdoing? If the grabbers said “Bill Gates stole such-and-such an amount from such-and-such identifiable victims, let’s give it back to them,” I’d agree this is about unfairness. Instead, they say “Bill Gates is much richer than us – that can’t possibly be right. Probably there must have been some as yet unidentified unfair process that caused that. So let’s take all his stuff and give it to ourselves.” And that’s the charitable interpretation; mostly they leave out the second sentence. At a certain point, if it walks like a duck…
        However, I wasn’t telling a parable, I was positing an evolutionary explanation for the seemingly irresponsible and destructive ways of the grabbers; that in the game of life, you are the defectors.

      • http://juridicalcoherence.blogspot.com/ Stephen Diamond

        So why the talk of inequality as opposed to wrongdoing?

        Because we live in a capitalist society, and calling Gates the beneficiary of inequality is a much milder criticism of a big respected capitalist than saying he got rich off other people’s sweat–which is the point Marxists would make.

        (See “Capitalism and socialism express conflicting reciprocity norms” — http://tinyurl.com/blhdluc .)

      • Zorn

        Except in knowledge work there is no toiling factory worker “sweat” don’t be ludicrous

        Working for Microsoft in the early days made you a multimillionaire and today is a pretty good gig.

        Your strawman is ridiculous and purely based on abstracts

      • Peter David Jones

        It’s not the case that every rebellion failed. And that’s beside the point anyway: the point is that you can’t infer that complaints about unfairness are always illiegitimate.

        The talk of inequality as wrongdoing is shorthand. People don’t complain about inequalities that arent wrong or can’t be fixed.

        Bill Gates isn’t subject to some completely

      • http://juridicalcoherence.blogspot.com/ Stephen Diamond

        The talk of inequality as wrongdoing is shorthand.
        People don’t complain about inequalities that aren’t wrong or can’t be
        fixed, so inequality ends up meaning bad-but-fixable-inequality.

        Any inequality is fixable in principle. (Moreover, some conceptual scheme
        can be found to make any inequality “wrong.”) We do
        correct for inequality in intelligence, looks, and health by (most
        importantly) taxing people less when their income is lower (whether the
        sources of the winners’ traits is viewed as wrongful).

        Equality isn’t just shorthand (consider progressive taxation, which penalizes
        “income”); equality is a norm distinct from fairness.

      • Peter David Jones

        Inequalities of intelligence aren’t equalised by progressive taxation, since it doesn’t alter intelligence. Beyond that, I don’t know what you are saying.

      • http://juridicalcoherence.blogspot.com/ Stephen Diamond

        Equality (in this context) doesn’t mean identity. It means the same level of welfare. It is possible, in principle, to reduce most any inequality in welfare by redistribution of other resources.

      • Peter David Jones

        OK, I can see how the Harrison Bergeron notion of equality isn’t related to injustice but…does anyone actually believe it? It seems like an inversion of Libertarianism.

    • Ken Arromdee

      This is not a distinction between beauty and race or gender. You can’t redistribute race or gender either. Yet we have no trouble figuring out how to redistribute based on those.

    • Eam Dominus

      There definitely are people trying to “redistribute” beauty. See all of those Dove “real beauty” campaigns, or other proclaimations that beauty is a social construct.

  • http://juridicalcoherence.blogspot.com/ Stephen Diamond

    But I think it is worth distinguishing people who take a position against a common view, from people who are uncertain about that view.

    It is also worth structurally distinguishing agnosticism about the effect of inequality from that about God. The religious agnostic simply doesn’t know whether God exists; the agnostic about inequality also doesn’t know whether more inequality would good.

    Agnosticism about whether inequality is bad implies (except with very strained assumptions) agnosticism about whether more inequality would be good.

    Which is to say, Robin is more inegalitarian than he sounds in this post.

    • stargirl

      Its also not clear inequality is always bad. Wealth inequality is not inherently bad, its just inefficient n terms of overall utility. If a genie asked me whether the genie should magically give a random billionaire another 10 billion dollars or not I would say give (this increases inequality). I would rather the money be distributed to lower wealth people but if this is not possible its better billionair person gets it.

      Its plausible to me more political inequality would be a good thing. Its reasonable to argue if only the to 10% of people by IQ could vote I think the USA would be a better place (I do not think voters are self interested). Peter Thiel has made some arguments that certain types of monopolies are very good for innovation. So possibly in some cases more market inequality might be good.

      • RobS79

        The genie example is interesting. Personally I would definitely say no to giving a random billionaire extra money, on the grounds that creating money out of nothing has consequences for everyone else (inflation). I expect you are trying to ignore this effect but I don’t know if the thought experiment is coherent if you do.

        However I might say yes to the genie anyway if I thought the average billionaire was a good guy and would spend it with high effectiveness on public goods (philanthropy, patronage of deserving artists, research etc).

        I do not really think this however.

        What about with a genie who offers extra IQ points to a random genius? Here I’d be likely to say yes for two reasons.

        1) There would be no comparable ‘inflation’ effect.

        2) But more importantly, I think the average genius is likely on balance to benefit the rest of us more if they have extra IQ points.

        I suppose my conclusion from this is that inequality is not bad per se. The real debate is about which distribution of qualities is likely to yield the most public good.

      • IMASBA

        Stargirl, your generosity would be rewarded in the way of you (and most people you care about) getting screwed over by whatever right-wing superpac/candidate/party much of that $10 billion of wealth would end up with.

      • http://quitelikelyblog.wordpress.com/ Quite Likely

        Uhhh, no, please don’t do that. Money isn’t wealth. Giving a random billionaire another $10 billion is not increasing the amount of wealth in the world, just giving that billionaire a larger share of it.

  • http://juridicalcoherence.blogspot.com/ Stephen Diamond

    I’m less concerned about the sorts of inequalities that greatly concern “liberals.” But I see this less as taking a political position than as remaining uncertain – until I see a good reason to care differently about different kinds of inequality, I’m going to consider them as similar.

    How can an economist evaluate social inequality in so hopelessly idealist a fashion?

  • Rebecca

    I see a clear distinction between: able to control and not able to control.

    You can control your health, beauty and intelligence to a fairly high degree (exercise, eat well, educate yourself). In other words, effort can level the playing field (not totally level, but much more so than out-of-control factors).

    Parental wealth — well, that is something that we have no control over.

    Thus, the bias is “even the playing field for things that we can not change” — BUT, give people the opportunity to tilt the playing field to their advantage with the variables that are largely under their control and reflect effort.


    Note – I’m not saying that this is totally accurate (poverty and lack of health go hand-in-hand, as a single example) — but I believe that is the logic wrapped around it.

    • zorg

      You’re hand waving away something that kills your whole point

      It is *statistically proven* that attractiveness is tied to height, facial symmetry, bone structure and body type.

      You CANNOT just casually “fix” or control these things the way you’re implying. In your fantasy scenario, a short, fat, ugly, hairy, balding man can just do a magic makeover and be fine.

      You see life this way because you are likely tall, slim and good looking. You don’t understand how massively damaging his particular social bias towards heigh, beauty, and physical perfection is for those who are *genetically* incapable of living up to it.

      And this social bias has been *proven* to translate to material wealth. The tall, good looking, guy gets married, has kids and is chosen first. As a result he is wealthier and happier.

      Obviously there are exceptions, but that’s like saying “well black women have no problem because Oprah is rich”. Trust me… There is a problem. The difference is, unlike sexism and racism, most people are perfectly ignorant of the notion than short, ugly, folks are just viewed as repulsive and rejected. It’s so subconscious it isn’t even acknowledged.

  • Ben Albert Pace

    The types of inequality that people talk most about, seem to be the ones that do the most damage. The first three types of inequality you mention are to do with status and socialising, whereas the rich taking money from the poor (the one my mother talks about by far the most) harms many people in dramatically larger ways regarding necessities (food, shelter, health). Can anyone give an example of an inequality that clearly causes much more damage to a person’s quality/quantity of life that people care about less?

    • Peter David Jones

      Caring about is not necessarily proportional to complaining about. Rational complainers complain about thing they can affect, which tend to be relatively small scale and close to home.

  • John_Maxwell_IV

    I hypothesized that the sorts of inequality that tend to generate the most controversy are ones where the inequality is along sharply divided factional lines: http://lesswrong.com/lw/fnt/factions_inequality_and_social_justice/ Income/parental wealth seems like a counterexample for my hypothesis since its distribution is relatively continuous.

  • Peter David Jones

    A unified theory of complaining and inequality.

    One of the things complaining is not, is a passive noting that certain things are bad. It’s way of doing something. Rational complainers complain about thing they can affect, which tend to be relatively small scale and close to home.

    Another thing complaints about inequality are not is a substitute for threatening or grabbing. Those who have the power to grab, grab, those who can issue plausible threats do so. Complaints about inequality are part of a process of rationally discussing resource allocation, and can lead to reallocations that are preferable ethically or in terms of efficiency.

    A successful argument for reallocation involves multiple factors, including the extent of an inequality, it’s tractability, and the benefits of changing it. Natural inequalities, like looks, tend not to be tractable. Opaque acquisition processes make it harder to counterargue that resources were fairly acquired. Emergency situations can tip the balance of argume.nt by creating urgent needs.

  • Myra Esoteric

    One thing I’ve noticed is an uptick in people telling others that improving yourself through plastic surgery, weight loss surgery or even attempting to change your personality is ‘self hatred’, ‘wannabeism’ and that you should be proud of everything that you were born with.

    While there are definitely people predisposed to weight gain, one major example is the concept of thin privilege.

  • http://johnmcdonnell.tumblr.com John McDonnell

    I absolutely agree that people care much more about privilege driven by some factors than by others. I think in the cases you listed, people think of those factors are somewhat under people’s control: you can diet and work out to look better, or practice witty conversation. Of course, in reality there is great inequality in how easy people find these activities.

    But the examples you listed are of shockingly diminutive privileges. The privilege of having more enjoyable conversations? Of being able to wear more types of clothes? These are extremely minor.

    Usually when people think of privilege, people think of bigger privileges. A few examples:

    – The privilege of not having police knock you down in the street and searching you on a random basis.
    – The privilege of not having a 1/3 chance of being sent to jail in your lifetime.
    – The privilege of not having a 20% chance of being raped at least once in your lifetime
    – The privilege of not being constantly harassed by men as you walk down the street.
    – The privilege of getting to complain about “only” earning $20/hour + benefits at a factory job while your counterparts in Bangladesh earn a few dollars a day in dangerous conditions.

    Those are immense privileges. And they are awarded on the basis of race, gender, family wealth, and nationality. The privileges of looks and cleverness pale in comparison.

    • zorgar

      It isn’t just wearing clothing. The author didn’t think it through.

      Tall, good looking, people have more opportunity, and are treated better, and as a result earn more money, statistically.

      This has been proven in studies.

      Having grown up short, ugly, poor and white I can tell you now I would definitely trade places with a tall, good looking, equally poor black guy.

      What you’re refusing to see is height and looks are *universal*. so even *within an underprivileged group* they cause caste division. Those supposed Bangladesh factory workers? The tall, good looking, folks are doing better *relative to their short ugly peers*

      And you can’t just magically grow, and no amount of dieting can make you not be ugly, nor can everyone just magically have a fantastic physique.

      I’d almost bet that your lack of empathy comes from being tall and above average looking. That’s ok though. That was the authors point and you helped make it

  • http://quitelikelyblog.wordpress.com/ Quite Likely

    How about because wealth is not a personal trait in nearly the same way as health, intelligence, attractiveness, etc. Wealth is always and only defined socially – it is your claim on a portion of the resources available in your society. How much wealth someone has is always and only a contingent result of how that person’s social system distributes wealth. Some social systems are more meritocratic in how they distribute wealth than others, but even then the justification is that linking wealth to merit encourages people to put forward greater effort, not that the meritorious somehow deserve more wealth than the incompetent.