While the case for minimal government is very strong, that doesn’t mean that there are easy answers for every question. For instance, we know that markets will – over time – penalize people who discriminate. A merchant or employer who deliberately shuns women, blacks, or some other group of people is being economically irrational and is going to incur higher costs and lose out compared to competitors.
But that doesn’t mean discrimination won’t exist, and that’s a challenge for libertarians. For all intents and purposes, a belief in private property and an aversion to government intervention leads to the conclusion that racists, sexists, and other unpleasant people have the right to be jackasses.
But that offends us as moral people, which is why libertarians have been wrestling with this quandary for decades, trying to figure out how to be against discrimination without giving government powers that inevitably will be abused.
I was reminded about these issues while reading about discrimination against unattractive people. Simply stated, life is better if you were lucky enough to be born with good looks, and life is not so much fun if you got the genetic short straw. And the discrimination goes well beyond who you can date. Here are some key segments of the article in New York magazine.
… attractive people make more money than unattractive people. A lot more money, in fact: $230,000 over the course of a lifetime, which holds true even in professions where looks wouldn’t seem to matter. Hamermesh found that fetching professors, for example, earn 6 percent more than their average-looking peers, while unattractive quarterbacks earn 12 percent less than their hunkier counterparts. Men, in fact, suffer the greater repulsiveness penalty in general: Unattractive women earn 3 percent less than average-looking women, while unattractive men’s take-home is reduced a whopping 22 percent. …Knowing the extent to which people are economically penalized (or rewarded) for their looks raises the question: Should the ill-favored be protected? And if so, how? Hamermesh, in the Über-cautious fashion of an economist, predicts that the most unsightly people will eventually receive the same kinds of legal protection extended to Americans with disabilities. Putting such statutes in place would require agreeing on a universal scale of attractiveness, and then having eligible people step forward to claim their protections. The financial incentive is obvious; the social and psychological costs, murkier. Would you be willing to petition the U.S. government for official recognition of your ugliness? Would you do it for $230,000?
I’m rather surprised, by the way, that ugly men suffer significantly harsher consequences than ugly women, but that’s just an aside. The real issue is whether this discrimination is real and whether it justifies government intervention.
I’ve actually written about this issue before, including a link to other research showing that tall people have an economic advantage over short people. So I don’t doubt that “lookism” exists. Heck, I try to engage in such discrimination in my personal life and I keep my fingers crossed that women won’t be similarly shallow.
But does that mean we should have some sort of government bureaucracy with the power to sue, fine, arrest, or otherwise harass based on whether people claim they didn’t get promotions because of their appearance?