Unequal Beauty Silence

Back on Sept 5, Sebastian Perez published a satritical Post oped advocating reducing beauty-based inequalities:

Most champions of the less privileged have never made a practical effort to mitigate the social differences caused by the inequitable distribution of what, nowadays, is a factor with an enormous socioeconomic impact: beauty. … I suggest … political constitutions … should state that citizens may not be discriminated against on the basis of their physical attractiveness. …

Governments should … ensure the supply of low-priced makeup, anti-wrinkle creams, aesthetic plastic surgery, etc. … financed through a tax on the beautiful people in each country.  By law, companies should be obliged to guarantee minimum employment quotas for less attractive people, especially in the movie industry, television, modeling and beauty pageants.  Such affirmative action would help compensate for so many years of hateful discrimination based on looks. … The doormen at fashionable clubs cannot continue to mercilessly make decisions about who gets in based only on physical attractiveness. Such discrimination should lead to jail time and fines.

I was reminded of this oped by John Nye:

Perhaps the real issue … [is] why certain inequalities which are also unevenly distributed — such as looks, intelligence, ability, or personality — do not invite as much social envy or opprobrium as disparities in income or wealth resulting from hard work or shrewd dealing. These differences are probably as large or larger than the measured inequalities in dollar income, yet go unmeasured and often excite no commentary in discussions of inequality.

Searching for thoughtful critiques replying to Perez’s oped, I could fine none – only a few short snippy comments.  (Same for Nye.)  Why the deafening silence?

Let’s be clear: the issue is why those concerned about other inequalities, such as re genders or ethnicities, seem so uninterested in inequalities associated with beauty, etc.   Not only could we cause some people to look less pretty, we could use money to compensate ugly folk, reducing total inequality of utility (and increasing total utility if we are risk-averse in status).  Yes we can influence our beauty to some extent, but compensation could be tied to more fixed features such as height, skin smoothness, or body symmetry.

One theory is that what we have seen are somewhat random coalitions: the strongest support for reducing certain inequailties come from member groups who are either on the losing end of an inequality, or get signaling benefits by showing sympathy to such groups.  But no coalition wants to help groups that are too intrinsically weak, producing disgust and derision instead of sympathy from onlookers.  So the ugly, the stupid, or beta males, for example, tend to make unlikely coalition partners.

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  • Stuart Armstrong

    Measurement problem. Gender and race are (relatively) simple to measure, and give simple dichotomie, resulting in easy to enforce solutions (quotas, for instance, or anti-discrimination laws).

    There are movements to extend these sort of measures to the fat and the aged, where measurement is also easy, but there are no simple binary choices; hence these haven’t really got off the ground.

    Beauty and beta-malehood are both difficult to measure, and exist on continuum. Hence no easy solutions.

    Stupidity I’d put in a seperate category; taking a job from a beautiful candidate and giving it to an equally good ugly candidate wouldn’t affect the economy much, but doing the same thing for smart-to-stupid would be much too high a cost to pay.

  • Stuart Armstrong

    My previous post was the theoretic case; the practical case that goes along with it is that it’s much simpler to try and reduce discrimination if the discriminated against group organise themselves and produce simple demands.

    The ugly, the beta males, and the stupid are very difficult groups to organise, and not enough of their members admit to belonging to them.

  • Daniel Burfoot

    It’s also worth noting that people can use their time, effort and smarts to build up various kinds of utility-enhancing investments like fitness, beauty, fashion sense, knowledge, and so forth. If you spend 1000 hours working to make money, the government takes some rather large chunk of the utility produced. But if you spend 1000 hours working out in the gym, you get all the utility. So as taxes increase, we should expect people to divert their investment efforts into non-taxable avenues, and to dedicate more energy to finding clever ways to create utility directly without first transforming labor into cash.

  • I always wondered, along the same lines, why valuing intelligence in a mate is not seen to be just as shallow as valuing beauty. Both are mostly genetic (though both can be enhanced to a degree with some work), and not a matter of conscious choice, such as beliefs, values, interests, and such deeper things we seek in mates. Why is it that it’s OK to appreciate someone’s IQ in the same context where it would be seen as tacky to appreciate physical measurements? What’s the difference?

    • Mike

      The difference is what you get in return.

      If you value beauty more, you find a beautiful mate, and enjoy his/her beauty. If you value intelligence more, you find an intelligent mate, and enjoy his/her intelligence.

      What typical people actually prefer is a matter of fact (though people might say they prefer something other than what they do, as a means of signaling, or their preference may be due to confusion about what will make them happier in the long run).

      But it makes sense to categorize valuating beauty as more shallow than valuing intelligence because the appreciation of beauty takes less effort than the appreciation of intelligence.

      • Right; it is more impressive to value intelligence, since it is harder to discern intelligence.

  • TGGP

    Steve Sailer sometimes ironically rails against “the tyranny of the glib”, but considering how much he mocks, say, Tom Friedman, for stupidity he’s hard to take seriously as one empathetic toward the dim. I recall Ilkka Kokkarinen once saying that Pat Buchanan and some Finnish populist party were the only political forces he knew of that seemed to stick up for “the left half of the bell curve”, but I can’t find his post at his old blog anymore.

    • You can easily find conservative defenses of stupidity (mocked here); after all, the best argument for relying on tradition is the belief that we are too stupid to figure out what changes will work.

      Not quite the same thing as defending stupid people as a class, to be sure.

  • Chuck

    I think the unequal treatment we try to protect minorities or ‘oppressed’ people from are perceived as human-imposed.

    People have made conscious decisions to never hire a black person based on ideology (at least that is how people who believe in free will see racism).

    There is no actual ‘conspiracy’ against the unattractive, it just sort of happen mostly unconsciously or at the least non-ideologically.

    Oppression by gender and race have been encoded in law (women can’t own property, you can beat them with a stick skinnier than your them, etc), blacks WERE property.

    The advantages to the beautiful/tall and disadvantages to the ugly/short have not, to my knowledge, even been so explicit and broad or systematic.

    Perhaps it was the biases that used to be encoded in law that logically people want to correct by legislative mandate.

    Another thing to consider is that events on these issues are still unfolding.

    The fight over equal treatment for women and minorities only took place in the last 200 to 50 years.

    It might in fact be logical to extend the reasoning to other disadvantaged groups, but societal change (in thought and behavior) simply don’t happen that fast.

    The absence of support for these ideas maybe isn’t so much hypocrisy or an inconsistency as it is a manifestation of a natural damping factor on human belief systems.

  • The standard answer is that nobody wants to affiliate with low-status groups and reveal their low status. Yet beauty is easily measurable so whether you support ugly rights or not, your own beauty can be independently determined. Thus the standard answer does not apply here.

    • Maybe you have some other problem, then: if you are hanging out with those fashion rejects, there must be *something* wrong with you.

  • Mike

    Income inequality is a proxy for all of them.

    That is, if there are economic advantages to being tall, beautiful, intelligent, etc, then these advantages translate into income disparity. So redistributing a fraction of income makes up for it (in part).

    There are social advantages to these qualities too, but people are more reserved about the govt managing social interactions, as compared to its managing economic interactions.

    • We quite obviously value pretty folks for reasons beyond their added income.

      • Mike

        Yes, but perhaps my last line isn’t clear.

        Money is produced by the state, and private property is defined and defended by the state. So it makes sense for the state to be involved in the distribution of income (or not — but still that’s a state decision).

        Social esteem, sex, etc., are not tied to organized public activity. While the state could involve itself in these matters, it would dramatically expand the realm of the state. Involvement in economic matters is not so because the state is necessarily involved by maintaining currency, defining property rights, and by providing public services.

        So, it seems to me there is valid rationale to separate the economic domain from the social domain. We accept the social injustice of ugliness as something not worth the “cost” (in expanded purview of the state) to fix, but consider economic injustice as worth it, since the state is already involved. Indeed, one might view gross income inequality as a consequence of the state (which protects for instance “intellectual” property), in which case one might consider it the obligation of the state to correct its injustice.

  • Height, strength, beauty, intelligence and “natural” characteristics are usually distributed normally, with thin tails, whereas the unequal distributions that people get worked up about are usually fat-tailed, thought social rich-get-richer dynamics.

    It is these fat-tailed distributions, where a few people have orders of magnitude more then other, and not because the “deserve” it but rather through lucky initial conditions and the Matthew effect, that we should be worried about and make policy to mitigate their detrimental effects on society.

  • Larry Lard

    I’m reminded of the Church of God the Utterly Indifferent from Kurt Vonnegut’s Sirens of Titan. Adherents who were physically attractive, holding that this endowed them with success unjustified by any of their actions, would disfigure themselves so they wouldn’t have an unfair advantage.

    Satire, of course, like the first piece referenced here.

    • tim

      Closer to the point is Vonnegut’s Harrison Bergeron, where the titular protagonist, a genuine ubermensch, is required to handicap himself in extreme fashion in a society that permits no natural advantages.

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  • I gave a shot at answering the same question in my last weekly opinion column.


    “Publicly calling for a redistribution of money to help poor children get health care says, “I’ll sacrifice my interests to make sure our future children will be cared for in sickness,” and we can see people taking that strategy.

    Calling for redistributions for “my short, ugly, fat, loveless children” isn’t a good evolutionary strategy. Perhaps that’s why it’s only facetiously done.”

  • jonathan

    Remember Marxism: from each according to ability, to each according to need. Even this formulation incorporates philosophically the concept of difference. Why? I’ve often thought about this because, to me, this revealed how the philosophy was cobbled together; it proclaimed change while preserving the differences that made change impossible. It’s not that I expected a philosophy to eliminate these acknowledged differences but that incorporating them meant the entire thing was a wishful sham.

    No cream or surgery can make tall people the same height as short people – and income follows height. Extensive surgery can only partially make the symmetries people find attractive – and then at a cost of plasticity that can overwhelm the “improvement.”

    So the real questions, for me, are the extent to which we can:

    a) investigate our judgements about these deeply rooted differences (such as tall = better).
    b) act on them in a rational manner.
    c) understand the limits to any attempts to mitigate differences and not waste effort, which means more rational effort not no effort.

  • Rob

    We all share in the boon of having beautiful people around in a way that you don’t from having other minority groups. We don’t want minimum quotas for ugly people in movies not because we’re not concerned about inequality, but because we appreciate beauty.

    Another point, though the extent is often exaggerated, judgments of beauty (or ugliness) are much more subjective than the other inequalities listed and therefore much harder to address through distribution.

  • Nenad Ilincic

    Robin, I think that the desire to redistribute material wealth is part of our behavioral heritage that enabled (some) people to survive through difficult times in the past, before the era of states and governments. Nations today are viewed, on the emotional level, as the equivalent of pre-historic tribes, and the same desire to redistribute comes into play.

    I view the dichotomy between redistributionist and libertarian worldviews as one rooted in basic values. Both modes of social organization worked to some degree in the past: the latter one enabling faster progress and higher average material wealth, the former one leading to higher survival in difficult times. Thus both of these modes have their adherents today, and they cannot be reconciled through logical arguments alone.

    Needless to say, there were never any benefits from forms of social organization in which other sources of disadvantage were systematically moderated (height, beauty, etc.).

  • Doug S.

    You might be amused to learn that the District of Columbia’s antidiscrimination statute includes “personal appearance” as a protected category.

    From the relevant law:

    “Personal appearance” means the outward appearance of any person, irrespective of sex, with regard to bodily condition or characteristics, manner or style of dress, and manner style of personal grooming, including, but not limited to, hair style and beards. It shall not relate, however, to the requirement of cleanliness, uniforms, or prescribed standards, when uniformly applied for admittance to a public accommodation, or when uniformly applied to a class of employees for a reasonable business purpose; or when such bodily conditions or characteristics, style or manner of dress or personal grooming presents a danger to the health, welfare or safety of any individual.

    Additionally, Michigan forbids discrimination based on height.

  • Karthik

    Beauty is a far more subjective attribute than wealth, gender and ethnicity.

  • No one seeks to address another widely perceived form of looks discrimination — that pretty people are dumb or ditzy. Just imagine how many beautiful people have been kept out of good jobs because the ugly and plain people in HR thought to themselves, “God, look at how much time she spent on her hair and make-up — clearly just another dumb cheerleader type.” Or perhaps, “This guy spends too much time at the gym.”

    I hereby call for affirmative action to drive more good-looking people into academic departments, IT divisions, and other sectors where the “pretty = dumb” mindset reigns.

  • Lets get on with this plan…. I am going to be rich.

  • Psychohistorian

    Simples explanation I can think of: We only intervene in the expressly economic realm.

    Welfare and taxation are our main redistributive schemes, and they deal exclusively with money. Laws meant to prohibit discrimination deal principally with economic concerns. They prohibit discrimination in hiring, housing, and during employment. There are no laws that prevent me from making lewd catcalls or refusing to associate with Asian people, so long as I do it on my own time. We don’t have any laws that explicitly tax one race and compensate another with the revenue. All, or nearly all, of our laws seek to ensure equal access to pursue economic interest, rather than explicitly compensating people for inequality. All the redistributive schemes those papers mention are completely unlike anything that currently exists.

  • cournot

    It would be very easy to give special subsidies to people who are short or to institute affirmative action in sports teams in favor of the weaker, smaller, or less talented. We could impose special taxes on industries rewarding the beautiful — such as modeling or fashion. We could severely limit anything resembling intelligence testing in college admissions. There are many kinds of policies that are extensions of existing policies in place. For example, companies are now afraid to give IQ tests to applicants because of Duke v. Griggs thus forcing college signaling as an alternative. Stricter extensions of those cases would penalize the clever even more. We could make it tax all professional sports more heavily, thus penalizing those whose many assets are athletic. We could force equal funding of basketball and basket weaving programs at all high schools. We could severely restrict social clubs like frats and sororities.

    None of these policies would be good, but all are not that far removed from things that have been routinely done already.

  • sillitoe

    I think that we feel differently about categories like beauty, intelligence, talent, etc. because those are, by nature, measures of quality or capability. Beauty, by definition, is the degree to which people take pleasure in looking at you. Intelligence, by definition, is skill at cognitive tasks. Fast-twitch muscles make you a better sprinter. These traits may not be virtues in the sense that they’re willed — they may be products of chance — but they are capabilities. It is also something of a superiority to be non-disabled, in that a disability by its nature makes it difficult or impossible for you to do at least one thing that able-bodied people can do.

    Race and gender, on the other hand, are not by definition measures of quality or capability. Yes, women can make babies and men can’t, and men are generally stronger, so sex can correlate with certain abilities, but “female” and “male” are not themselves measures of ability. It cannot be unequivocably and by definition better to be white than black, in the same way that it is by definition better to be strong than weak, beautiful than ugly, or intelligent than stupid.

    Wealth is a different story. Someone with a high income is by definition better at earning money. (As with beauty, this is independent of effort or desert.) And, in itself, more wealth is better than less wealth. I would say that it is better to be rich than poor in the same way that it is better to be beautiful than ugly.

  • Eric Falkenstein

    Isn’t the lack of any real support for all types of inequality the best refutation of John Rawls’ Theory of Justice, which supposedly motivates egalitarianism?

  • Last year I was at the California Republicans’ Convention. Most of the people there were very attractive and well dressed.

    A few weeks later I went to the California Democrats’ Convention. There, most of the people were markedly unattractive. A lot of the younger crowd were actively unattractive. One guy stands out in my memory; long greasy hair, facial piercings, dirty clothes.

    (Libertarians are still the most attractive!)

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