Sex, luck and distributive justice

If ‘status anxiety’ is as big a threat to individual well-being as many egalitarians seem to think then logically they should favour the equalisation of opportunities based on physical attractiveness as well as those based on income. Policies focussed solely on ‘correcting’ the income distribution may simply intensify the significance of physical attractiveness or other status markers unrelated to levels of material wealth. In the absence of income redistribution a person who is physically unattractive may be ‘compensated’ by their relative wealth, while someone who is relatively poor but physically attractive may be ‘compensated’ by their beauty. An exclusive focus on income redistribution in this case intensifies the importance of beauty as a status marker and does an injustice to the rich but ugly person.

This argument is not intended to be as flippant as it may seem. Sex is an important if not crucial part of most people’s lives. Indeed, survey evidence indicates that people often rank finding an attractive and satisfying partner equal to if not more highly in their happiness quotient than having a high-paying job. The determinants of whether one is sexually successful are, however, often the result of factors which are ‘not deserved’. Those fortunate enough to be born with genes for above average attractiveness are likely to have a greater choice of potential partners than those less well endowed – but they no more deserve these characteristics than does someone deserve the advantages from being born into a higher income home, having the intelligence quotient of Stephen Hawking or the football skills of Wayne Rooney. On egalitarian grounds, therefore, differences in attractiveness meet the usual criteria considered to warrant redistributive state action – they are an important factor influencing the quality of individuals lives and they are distributed in a manner which is to use Rawls’s terminology, ‘arbitrary from a moral point of view’. One might, therefore, seek to justify a range of policies to improve access to ‘sexual goods’. These could include the provision of vouchers to enable the less attractive to buy the experience of sex with someone who is physically more desirable or if the direct involvement of money payments for sex is thought to debase the nature of the act then people could secure these goods ‘free at the point of delivery’ from professional public service sex workers contracted by the National Health Service. Alternatively, the less attractive might be provided with subsidised access to cosmetic surgery, or the more attractive might be required to undergo some simple and relatively painless surgical procedures in order to ‘level the playing field’.

Read the rest of the article on the Pileus blog.

Dr Mark Pennington is the author of Robust Political Economy: Classical Liberalism and the Future of Public Policy.

IEA Fellow of Political Economy

Professor Mark Pennington is a fellow in Political Economy at the Institute of Economic Affairs and is also a lecturer in Political Economy at King's College, London. Mark holds a PhD from the London School of Economics, has been published in a number of publications and is co-editor of The Review of Austrian Economics.

1 thought on “Sex, luck and distributive justice”

  1. Posted 05/12/2011 at 15:48 | Permalink

    Mark, don’t tempt our social engineers!
    Catherine Hakim’s recent book “Honey Money” gives evidence for the economic returns from attractiveness and a very individual take on this issue. A long time ago Kurt Vonnegut wrote a short story, “Harrison Bergeron”, which satirised (inter alia) state measures to offset the benefits enjoyed by good-looking people.

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