An Economist’s Special Pleading: Affirmative Action for the Ugly

It’s hard to tell whether economist Dan Hamermesh is pulling our collective leg, or if he’s serious. In either event, here’s a portion of his proposal to instigate affirmative action for the uglies among us (“Ugly? You May Have a Case,” The New York Times, August 27, 2011):

While extensive research shows that women’s looks have bigger impacts in the market for mates, another large group of studies demonstrates that men’s looks have bigger impacts on the job.

Why this disparate treatment of looks in so many areas of life? It’s a matter of simple prejudice. Most of us, regardless of our professed attitudes, prefer as customers to buy from better-looking salespeople, as jurors to listen to better-looking attorneys, as voters to be led by better-looking politicians, as students to learn from better-looking professors. This is not a matter of evil employers’ refusing to hire the ugly: in our roles as workers, customers and potential lovers we are all responsible for these effects.

How could we remedy this injustice? With all the gains to being good-looking, you would think that more people would get plastic surgery or makeovers to improve their looks. Many of us do all those things, but as studies have shown, such refinements make only small differences in our beauty. All that spending may make us feel better, but it doesn’t help us much in getting a better job or a more desirable mate.

A more radical solution may be needed: why not offer legal protections to the ugly, as we do with racial, ethnic and religious minorities, women and handicapped individuals?

Why would Hamermesh take a special interest in the advancement of ugly persons? It’s probably a case of special pleading:

(I knew Hamermesh when he was in his early 20s. The beard is a cosmetic improvement.)

Hamermesh’s curriculum vitae is fairly impressive, but it is evident that he failed to make the grade in the Ivy League. If Hamermesh blames his looks for his inability to rise higher in his profession, he should not. As economists go — and I’ve known dozens of them — his looks fall in the mid-range.  So, if Hamermesh is disappointed in his professional standing, he should blame it on the inner man, not on his looks.

He should consider, also, that there is a high correlation between looks and intelligence. Good-looking individuals are not more successful, on average, than their less-blessed peers; they are more successful because they generally are smarter than their peers.

But none of this will matter to Hamermesh, if he is serious, or to those who are serious about combating what they call look-ism or beauty-ism. The search for cosmic justice — the rectification of all that is “unfair” in the world — is relentless, knows no bounds, and is built upon the resentment and punishment of success.

Related posts:
The Cost of Affirmative Action
Positive Rights and Cosmic Justice
How to Combat Beauty-ism

2 thoughts on “An Economist’s Special Pleading: Affirmative Action for the Ugly

  1. Affirmative action for the unattractive is not just a loopy idea; it’s also completely unworkable. Who gets to decide who qualifies for affirmative action on the grounds of ugliness? How ugly do you have to be to qualify? And in whose opinion? Who decides what is the correct percentage of ugly employees for a given company? If an obese bald person gets hired as part of the ugly quota, and then that person loses weight and buys a toupee, does he risk being fired for no longer being ugly enough?

    On the other hand, career counselor Marty Nemko recommends that employers voluntarily hire the unattractive. He gives his reasons in this column from a couple of years ago. Worth a read!


  2. Your analysis of the problems with affirmative action for the ugly is spot-on.

    Thanks for the link to Nemko’s column. I was struck by this passage:

    “Hire ugly. All other things being equal, I’d give the nod to an ugly candidate. It’s not charity: They have less value in the marketplace and can be hired less expensively, even though looks have, for most jobs, little or no bearing on job performance. I’ve found that, on average, ugly people are more likely to be kind and to work harder because they know they’re working at a disadvantage. And unattractive people are more likely to stay with me because they tend to have a tough time getting hired, in part because they generally don’t network efficiently. If I treat unattractive employees well, they’re usually very loyal.”

    Thinking back to my experience as an employer, I think Nemko may be right. An employer shouldn’t “hire ugly” just for the sake of “fairness,” but it’s important to look beyond appearance when making hiring and promotion decisions. It’s important not just for the sake of the individuals who are affected directly by those decisions, but also for the health of one’s business. The same goes for race, gender, etc. It’s when government gets into the act that things really get screwed up, for the reasons you articulate in your comment.


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