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Facial Justice: A Dystopian Classic of Envy and Equality with a Solid Basis in Economic Reality

I spent last week reading about beauty—not from the perspective of poetry or art history, but from that of economics and social commentary.

The first of two books I read on the subject was Beauty Pays by my old classmate Daniel Hammermesh—a brisk, popular survey of research by the author and others on the question of why attractive people are more successful in the labor market. When I mentioned that book to my wife, the political scientist and ethicist of our family, she said I ought also to read L. P. Hartley’s Facial Justice, a 1960 dystopian novel in the genre of George Orwell’s 1984, but funnier, or Kurt Vonnegut’s story “Harrison Bergeron,” but more subtle. Although the literary styles of Hartley and Hammermesh couldn’t be more different, they share the premise that beauty is scarce and valuable.

The value of beauty

In Hartley’ post-World War III England, life is grim, but beauty still pays. The good jobs go to the good-looking Alphas, while the homely Gammas are lucky if they can find work as temporary subs for the better looking. The majority of average-lookers, the Betas, resent the Alphas and condescend to the Gammas. Most sinister of all, only Alphas can aspire to enter the privileged ranks of inspectors, who help the Dictator run the place. The heroine of the novel is a “failed Alpha”—a pretty girl who has just missed the cut to become an inspector because, she thinks, her nose is just a bit too retroussé.

According to Hammermesh, the data strongly confirm the notion that the good jobs go to the Alphas. Citing his own work from the American Economic Review, he points to an 8 percent earnings premium for women of above average appearance and a 4 percent penalty for those who are below average. That is not a trivial amount—it averages out to about a quarter of a million dollars over a lifetime. Presumably, for the top 3 percent of women who are “strikingly beautiful” (Alpha-pluses to Hartley, or 5’s on Hammermesh’s preferred 5-point scale), the premium is even greater.

Hartley does miss the mark in one respect, though. He thinks that looks only count for women. “The virtue of a man lies in what he is, not what he looks like,” says the Dictator. Not so, says Hammermesh. In fact, according to his research, the gap between the earnings of above- and below-average-looking men is even greater than for women, 17 percent instead of just 12 percent. (There is a subtle difference, though. For women, the gap comes mostly from a premium for the beautiful, while for men, most of the gap takes the form of a penalty applied to those of below-average looks.)

Is beauty socially productive?

Why does beauty pay? Hammermesh gives quite a bit of thought to that question. He is of two minds. One possibility is that beautiful people really are more socially productive. Suppose, for example, that the soprano Maria Callas, with her Beta looks, and Kiri Te Kanawa, a pure Alpha, can sing equally well,  but that people are willing to pay more to hear Te Kanawa perform. If so, then if the market makes sure that Te Kanawa makes it onto the stages of the best opera houses, that is a genuine boost to social welfare. On the other hand, suppose that good-looking sales reps can, on average, sell more insurance than homely ones, as data cited by Hammermesh suggests that they do. In that case, the earnings premium they capture is more likely a purely private gain that results from zero-sum competition among  employers to hire the most attractive representatives. If so, random matching of representatives to jobs, with equal pay for all, would not reduce social welfare.

The heroine of Facial Justice timidly proposes the social productivity hypothesis. “Don’t you think,” she says, “that when people see me looking pretty—if I do—it makes them feel more cheerful? There’s no harm in feeling cheerful, is there?” In Hartley’s post-war society, though, that is a distinctly minority view. In fact, beauty is considered a social negative. Instead, the organizing principles are the “two E’s”—the bad E, envy, and the good E, equality. In the Dictator’s view, inequality and envy were the causes of the wars that nearly destroyed the earth, and the only sure defense against envy is complete equality in everything.

In many areas, achieving equality is easy. Everyone lives in similar housing. Some individuality in dress is permitted, but to level things out, everyone has to wear a uniform of sackcloth one day a week, and miscreants can be punished by permanent sackcloth. Although some jobs are more desirable than others, pay doesn’t seem to differ much. As a precaution against accumulation of wealth, money takes the form of personalized coupon books with tickets that can be used to buy things from stores but that can’t be exchanged among individuals.

These are mere details, however. The focal point of the book, and the source of its title, is the policy of “betafication” that aims to achieve equality of looks. Alphas (at least those who don’t pass the exam to become inspectors) are under official pressure, and sometimes compulsion, to undergo plastic surgery that replaces their natural face with a neutral, expressionless Beta version. Many Gammas also volunteer for betafication, which, in their case, involves an upgrade to average beauty, but (foreshadowing Botox) at the sacrifice of the ability form facial expressions.

There is much more. A concert where two pianists of greatly different skills play the Moonlight Sonata, with the audience is encouraged to applaud the less skilled player in the name of equality. A campaign to simplify the language, on the grounds that it is unfair for verbs to be governed by nouns. A movement to replace sports in which one team wins and the other loses with sports in which everyone wins or everyone loses. I don’t want to spoil all the fun, so on to more serious things.

Where to draw the line?

As satire, Facial Justice uses beauty as vehicle to point out the absurdities that arise when equality is pushed beyond reasonable limits as a goal of social policy. Those limits are a question that Hammermesh takes up, too. Here is how he frames it:

Imagine the following book: It starts off by showing that a particular group of people has a characteristic that remains essentially unchanged over their lifetimes unless they incur huge expenditures to alter it artificially. That characteristic makes its members less likely than other citizens to be working for pay and earning money. When they do work for pay, members of the group earn less than other workers, even after adjusting for the amount and kind of education that they have obtained and for numerous other earnings-enhancing characteristics. When they marry, the education and thus the earnings ability of their spouses is less than that of others’ spouses. Companies that employ members of this group do not generate as much sales revenue as others. The group’s members typically date and marry other group members. Finally, members of the group occasionally sue and recover for deficiencies in their earnings.

I have essentially described this book, with the group being below-average-looking individuals. Yet if I had substituted [ ______ ], the discussion would, with minor changes, have been very much the same.

What should we put in the blank, and what difference does it make? There are a number of personal characteristics that could, with statistical accuracy, be used to fill it in. Which of them should we consider legitimate objects of public policy?

On first reading, when I was halfway through the above paragraph, I thought that Hammermesh was going to fill in the blank with intelligence, but instead, he substitutes race. Either would be accurate in economic terms, but current American policies treat the two traits differently. The government deploys a full range of anti-discrimination and affirmative action policies to equalize both opportunities and outcomes by race, but, for the most part, it does not grant similar protections to those who are simply unintelligent.

What should we do, then, about “lookism”? Hartley, presumably, chooses facial equality as a tool of satire in the expectation that his readers will find policies to protect the unbeautiful to be laughably absurd. Hammermesh is not so sure. He thinks that it might make sense to consider homeliness a disability as the term is defined in the Americans with Disabilities Act. He notes that the District of Columbia prohibits discrimination “on the basis of outward appearance for purposes of recruitment, hiring, or promotion.” And he notes that the French labor code offers comprehensive protection in matters of hiring, firing, and promotion on the basis of “physical appearance.”

In a section entitled “What Justifies Not Protecting the Ugly,” Hammermesh notes that “to the extent that the labor of two groups is substitutable in employment, additional protections for the ugly would reduce wage rates and/or lower employment opportunities for better-looking workers, particularly those who just miss qualifying for protection—the near ugly.” It seems that even if we stop short of compulsory betafication, it is not possible to protect the homely without harming the good looking.

Hammermesh also considers the possibility that legal protection for the ugly would erode the social productivity of beauty. However, he doubts “that the social productivity of preferences for good looks is sufficient to overcome their economic costs. And, even if it did, the fairness issue arguably would trump any concerns about social productivity.”

In the end, Hammermesh comes down on the side of protection for the looks-challenged: “Bad-looking people should command the sympathy of others along a sensible Rawlsian criterion.” He sees the only real barrier to anti-lookism policies as being the “scarcity of political energy for offering protection,” but he thinks it likely that bad-looking Americans will eventually be included among those protected from discrimination.

The Rawlsian criterion that Hammermesh has in mind is of the “there but for the grace of God go I” variety. More exactly, the criterion invites you to decide what kind of a society you would like to be born into, from behind a veil of ignorance, not knowing whether you would be born homely or beautiful. If I understand him correctly, he suggests that a sensible person would choose to be born into a society that deploys anti-discrimination and affirmative action laws to shield bad-looking people from the consequences of their homeliness. I don’t think he is contemplating the possibility of a society in which everyone would be born, or physically transformed after birth, to be equally attractive, but logically, it seems that a Rawlsian preference for protection from lookism would imply a Rawlsian preference for actual equality of looks.

Hartley disagrees. It is not his style to preach, but his message, clearly conveyed through the dialog and action of his novel, is that a predilection for equality, when carried too far, turns from virtue to vice. At one point, his heroine reflects that when “the whole idea of comparison is frowned upon and virtually forbidden, what is there left to think about? If personality expresses itself by acts of discrimination, and discrimination, besides being taboo, has no material to work on, what becomes of personality? It shrinks, it atrophies, it dies.” Another time he writes, “At times she had felt guilty, but at other times she took a fierce pleasure in her resistance [to the Dictator], because it made her feel herself; the feeling of unlikeness was a positive pleasure, whereas to be like was only neutral happiness.”

Personally, I side with Hartley and his heroine. I try to look at the matter from behind an imagined veil of ignorance. I try to weigh the risk of being born a Gamma against the losing the occasional chance to attend a lecture by an attractive professor. I try to weigh the security of anti-lookism laws against the prospect that all operas would be sung by Maria Callases and none by Kiri Te Kanawas. On the whole, I think I’d prefer to take my chances with a world that included a full range of homely and beautiful people, even if I had to do without government protections for the looks-challenged.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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