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The Economics of Beauty

March 14, 2023 | 435 words | Economics, Politics, Philosophy

Now here is an angle Karl Marx and Fredrich Engels probably did not cover in their famous 1848 treatise on economics, “The Communist Manifesto”…  Namely, the impact beauty has on an economic system.  But it turns out a gentleman by the name of Daniel S. Hamermesh has given it a lot of thought.

To be clear, we are not referring to Beauty in the transcendental sense, the virtue seen as complimenting Truth, and thought by philosophers and poets to be an expression of the Good.  No, what we are talking about here is good, old-fashioned physical attractiveness.  The kind of thing randomly bestowed on certain men and women through a favorable combination of parental genes, making them easy on the eyes.

Driving to work the other day I caught part of an entertaining radio interview Hamermesh was doing for the BBC, describing how better-looking people experience undeniable benefits like having an easier time finding employment, earning more than their average-looking counterparts, receiving promotions sooner, etc.

It was fascinating stuff, and instead of coming off like a stuffy academic he sounded like a wry, good-natured observer of human nature.  I looked him up the first chance I got, and learned Daniel S. Hamermesh (b. 1943) is a tenured professor of economics at the University of Texas, who since the mid-nineties has done a series of studies on the role appearance plays in the workplace.  

The thread that run through his work is simple enough:  Attractive workers make more money.  These amounts vary by gender, and looks are valued differently based on profession.  In a bold assertion that will surprise absolutely no one, Professor Hamermesh’s data clearly shows that “pulchritude” is valuable in nearly all professions, not just where good looks would seem to be an obvious asset.

In one of his recent books, “Beauty Pays” (Princeton University Press, 2013), Hamermesh considers whether  extra pay for good-looking people represents discrimination, and whether government programs should aid the ugly.  

Oh, my.  In the quest for economic justice, I do believe government has a role to play in trying to balance the scales our free market often inadvertently leaves dangling precariously over a cliff.  But no, government aid for the less-than-good-looking is not an initiative we should be storming the castle over.  

To all the other obstacles we face in creating a world that provides fair treatment and equitable compensation in the work place, obstacles Marx and Engels and many others of varying political persuasions and religious convictions have tried to address over the years, Daniel Hamermesh’s work has added an unexpected twist: one’s relative lack of physical beauty.

Robert J. Cavanaugh, Jr.

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