Dance 10, Looks 3 – Inequality of Talent and Looks

Rose Woodhouse

Elizabeth Picciuto was born and reared on Long Island, and, as was the custom for the time and place, got a PhD in philosophy. She freelances, mainly about disability, but once in a while about yeti. Mother to three children, one of whom is disabled, two of whom have brown eyes, three of whom are reasonable cute, you do not want to get her started talking about gardening.

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100 Responses

  1. Patrick Cahalan says:

    Innnnnteresting angle. I’m envious I didn’t think of it. I love the change in perspective.

    I will muse. Lots of musing to do these days.Report

  2. Erik Kain says:

    There should be a picture of beautiful people with this post.Report

  3. Patrick Cahalan says:

    So I’ve thought about this while I had afternoon coffee and this is what I’ve come up with so far:

    > Redistribution of wealth is supposed to compensate for the
    > morally neutral aspect of the acquisition of wealth.

    I’m not sure this is a universal principle, although some/probably most people think this way.

    > Why is redistribution or compensation for lack of talent
    > considered significantly more leftist or drastic than wealth?

    I think because “wealth” is a creation of humankind, and “talent” is a creation of an individual (“looks” are largely a creation of nature).

    American political philosophy, in particular, has emphasized the individual quite a bit. We, collectively, feel a subconscious responsibility for “wealth”, as it is an aggregated construct created by all of us. We don’t collectively feel the same responsibility for individual talents, since they are largely shunted into the, “Well, that’s *that* guy’s problem” bucket.

    I’m not phrasing this very well.Report

    • greginak in reply to Patrick Cahalan says:

      How about phrasing it this way. We do actually have redistribution ( although that is a clumsy word) for some sorts of lack of “talent.” Mostly for people how have severe physical or mental disabilities we provide direct aid and often programs to help them. Unless you have a specific problem then talents are individual factors for individual pursuit of happiness. Wealth, and all the advantages or disadvantages that come or go with it, are often controlled/limited by others. Since wealth can be deeply affected by what others do it is more reasonable for it to be modified by the group. Not sure that is much better but i think i makes sense to me.Report

    • Rose Woodhouse in reply to Patrick Cahalan says:

      Talent is relative to a society, though. What is an ethnic group with no contact with the developed world supposed to make of Barry Bonds?Report

  4. Anne says:

    Good post Rose I need to think on it more but it immediately brought to mind. Vonnegut’s “Harrison Bergeron” which is definitely a road I don’t think we want to go down.Report

    • John Howard Griffin in reply to Anne says:

      Thank you. Was trying to remember the name of the book.

      It reminded me of the same.Report

    • Alan Scott in reply to Anne says:

      Harrison Bergeron is a parody. The point isn’t “enforced equality is bad”, it’s “People who think government interest in equality will inevitably lead to a distopia are being foolish.”Report

      • James Hanley in reply to Alan Scott says:

        Are you sure about that? That’s a sincere question. I didn’t take Vonnegut that way, but I’m no expert.Report

        • greginak in reply to James Hanley says:

          James- Actually i was curious about that also. Some cursory googling found different opinions about that. One in depth review noted KV made a lot of positive statements about leftie politics so it was unlikely he was attacking a leftie push for whatever equality means in this case.

          Certainly many people take it the way Alan is suggesting.Report

          • Alan Scott in reply to greginak says:

            Vonnegut’s political opinions are a clue, certainly. But I think the real tell is the ridiculousness presented in the story.

            The Handicapper General’s name is Diana Moon Glampers. The US constitution has 210 amendments before the equality regime is put into place. Harrison declares himself emperor. He hovers in midair through sheer force of will until shot dead.

            I suppose it’s possible that Vonnegut is just a crap writer. But I think it much more likely that he was intentionally employing crappy writing for effect.Report

    • Brandon Berg in reply to Anne says:

      Harrison Bergeron wasn’t really about redistribution, though. Exceptional qualities and abilities weren’t so much redistributed as destroyed. Though in some extreme cases (e.g., Zimbabwe) redistribution has essentially ended up working that way.Report

  5. Maribou says:

    My first thought (not necessarily best thought) is that it has to do with measurability, or quantification, in some way. It’s relatively easy (though certainly gameable) to figure out who has the most material wealth. Appearance and talent are both far more subjective. One can derive “objective” standards, but they are far fuzzier – or I guess what I really mean is far less subject to a national-level consensus – than standards of material wealth are.

    I think we would have to have an incredibly strong social consensus about appearance, or talent, before we started redistribution measures; the consistencies that arise now are fairly persistent, and have been shown to affect success in specific contexts, but they aren’t nearly as universal as our standards of wealth. There’s certainly plenty to argue about in the domain of wealth! But not nearly as much.

    Have you seen Gattaca? I ask because that’s exactly where my mind went, reading your post.Report

    • Patrick Cahalan in reply to Maribou says:

      > Have you seen Gattaca? I ask because that’s exactly where
      > my mind went, reading your post.

      I have a love/hate relationship with Gattaca.Report

    • greginak in reply to Maribou says:

      I enjoyed Gattaca. As i remember the lead dude was excluded from space travel due to being genetically inferior. (correct me if i’m forgetting something important) The message of the movie made sense but the scenario sort of didn’t. It really might make sense to exclude people with a high potential for serious physical problems from certain jobs. However making the scenario more reasonable, which wouldn’t have been hard, would have made the movie less dramatic. The peeps we choose to be astronauts did tend to be in really good shape for good reasons.Report

      • Patrick Cahalan in reply to greginak says:

        He actually had a high potential for serious physical problems; statistically, his character was likely to die relatively young, and thus they wouldn’t get the most bang out of their training buck, IIRC. Yes, just checked it on Wikipedia; he had a life expectancy of 30.2 years.

        The Jerome character irritated me.Report

      • Maribou in reply to greginak says:

        Well, the reason I thought of Gattaca in this context is that it’s set in a near-future where most babies are genetically designed to both look good and be high performers (as well as safe from most chronic diseases). The main character wasn’t just inferior, he was one of a dwindling class of non-genetically-enhanced folks who were stuck with the looks and (genetic-component-of) talent that nature shook up for them, instead of being tweaked. In the Gattaca-future, they actively work to undermine those types of inequality, before birth.Report

  6. John Howard Griffin says:

    So I am left wondering this. Redistribution of wealth is supposed to compensate for the morally neutral aspect of the acquisition of wealth. Why is redistribution or compensation for lack of talent considered significantly more leftist or drastic than wealth? And why is compensation for ugliness considered absolutely insane?

    It seems that you are saying this:

    Why is the idea of redistribution of wealth considered more acceptable than redistribution of talent (even if redistribution of wealth might be considered ?morally? wrong by some people)? And, why is redistribution of ugliness considered crazy?

    In the end, how do you redistribute talent or beauty? The wealth already exists, and it is taken from one and given to another, when redistributing wealth. I don’t see how you redistribute talent or beauty. Even the compensation comes from the wealth redistribution – you take money and give money. Saying that you compensate for lack of talent means someone else’s wealth is being used. It would be like saying that wealth redistribution means that we need to take some of their beauty and give it to someone else.

    It’s an interesting idea, and points to some of the failings and prejudices of the human race. But, wealth redistribution doesn’t follow as closely with talent and beauty, at least in the way that I see it. Additionally, beauty and the eye, and all that. So, while wealth is a fairly specific metric, talent is less so, and beauty even less. Not to say there aren’t cultural standards and such. Just that these don’t go together so easily…

    Great Title and post, Rose.Report

    • All other things being equal, are good looking people more likely to get better jobs than the less fortunate? More money? How about taller guys compared to shorter?

      If so (and I believe that they’ve found that, all other things being equal, this is the case), is this unfair to the point where something ought to be done? (I remember reading Gwyn-gwyn writing an essay about her experiences with a fat suit whilst filming Shallow Hal and the differences with how she was treated by society, for example.)

      I think we might all agree that this is not exactly “fair”… but I also seem to think that we’d all agree that this is one of those “life isn’t fair” things that doesn’t require a policy to help people compensate for homely.Report

  7. Brandon Berg says:

    How one would do this would be, I suppose, a bit more difficult than redistributing wealth.

    Face transplant!Report

  8. J.L. Wall says:

    Some speculations:

    1) It isn’t Kass’ “Yuck!” principle in bioethics, but perhaps we might call it the “Danger Will Robinson!” principle. “Harrison Bergeron” and “Gattaca” (mentioned by others above) aren’t, of course, philosophy, and don’t explain WHY their world is unpleasant. But they clearly present worlds in which I, for one, wouldn’t want to live. I suspect I’m not the only one who experiences this — perhaps contributing to the failure of a beauty/talent principle to catch on.

    2) The binary of Individual/Not-Individual responsibility Patrick mentions is very worthwhile. I, however, wouldn’t necessarily tie it to any specifically American degree of importance on individuality. Rather, the premise of a non-created world filled with non-created beings is, at least in its ability to be widely held and discussed (if not necc. by a majority) relatively new. Whether we’re talking the Creator-God of the Bible, or the Greek insistence on Fate running its course — and Zeus-I-don’t-care-Fate’s-killing-your-favorite; watch your damn self lest you blow the universe to smithereens! — talent and appearance are “created”/”given”/”natural” elements in this order — at least far more so than wealth. And y’don’t mess with Creators, and ESPECIALLY not with Fate. In a way that’s much more than vestigal/residual, this worldview is affective. Maybe this is closer to ‘Yuck!’ than (1) above, if only because it’s a sense that redistribution of looks/talent/suchlike would be unnatural.

    3) Along these lines, there IS a lengthy history of combating unequal distributions of wealth. Especially from the sources that would lead us to believe that other sorts of redistribution might be unnatural. The Bible, Old and New, is quite strenuous in its skepticism of wealth and sympathy with the poor. Back in Greece, tragedy could depict BAD men who became wealthy, or GOOD men who became poor; Aristophanes, moreso than his stern colleagues, showed some comic sympathy with the unjustly poor man. But when he mocked Sokrates’ ugliness, legend has it that the man himself stood up in the theatre to allow patrons to compare the mask with his own so they could see Ari’s accuracy. So not only is there no tradition of an unnatural redistribution of wealth, there’s a tradition in its favor, to varying degrees and in varying forms. So we’re preconditioned, culturally. And from a young age, without anyone thinking about it.

    4) Democracy gives primacy to the middle segment of society over the wealthiest or poorest. (In theory, at least.) The ideal is the middle class; the poorest need help achieving it; the wealthiest, in some cases, mazel tov! while recognizing that others might be there undeservingly.Report

    • Rose Woodhouse in reply to J.L. Wall says:

      Re: 1 and 3, I was wondering if there were a reason for it. Is it an instinct we should talk ourselves out of (like mistrust of out-group members) or is there a good basis behind the feeling?

      Re: 2 – really interesting!Report

      • Chris in reply to Rose Woodhouse says:

        I think John’s 3 gets at the heart of the matter. In general, wealth isn’t considered morally neutral. This could also be the case with talent and looks (and with talent, might have been seen as having a moral component for much of history), but I’m not sure.

        We live in a fairly unique society, historically, in which there is some SES mobility based on talent (and looks), but even now, wealth is generally considered to have a moral component (sometimes good, sometimes bad).Report

      • Chris in reply to Rose Woodhouse says:

        By the way, I think you do well to not just focus on wealth, though. The exclusive focus on wealth leads to a limited idea of what inequality is and how it affects people. And looks and talent are related to many other inequalities in the same way that wealth is (they are, in facted, related to wealth inequality).Report

  9. Roger says:

    From an evolutionary angle, inequality is about the success of our genes. It is measured in the number of healthy grand kids we produce. Productive food accumulation obviously contributes to our survival, and that of our family. Status, and good healthy looks are other proxies for genetic fitness. Higher status individuals leave substantially more grand kids in anthropological studies. Talent is another signal of genetic fitness.

    In other words, they all play into genetic fitness. That is why we are driven to strive for them.

    However, we treat status and wealth differently than the others. The anthropology I have read indicates that our ancestors were extremely concerned and extremely effective at controlling for the threat of high status. Here is a quote from Herbert Gingtis on Boehm’s findings in the field:

    “Christopher Boehm concurs with Woodburn in his famous book Hierarchy in the Forest (2000). He observes that we humans share with other primates the striving for hierarchical power, but hunter-gatherers successfully countered the dominance aspirations of “bullies” by what he calls “reverse dominance hierarchy.” By this he means that hunter-gatherers do not accept being controlled by an alpha-male, and are extremely sensitive to attempts of group members to accumulate power. When an individual appears to be stepping out of line by threatening or killing group members, he will be warned and punished. If this behavior continues and he cannot be ostracized, the group will delegate one or more members (usually including at least one close relative of the offender) to kill him. Boehm’s message in Hierarchy in the Forest is that “egalitarianism…involves a very special type of hierarchy, a curious type that is based on antihierarchical feelings” and that we are genetically predisposed to exhibit these antihierarchical feels, because individuals with excessively pro-hierarchical feelings have tended to be underrepresented in the gene pool through the process of reverse dominance hierarchy.”

    In summary, I believe we are drawn toward pulling down those with status.

    On possessions, anthropologists find that we are drawn toward social pressures to share our food. There is extensive work on the origins of reciprocity, but the brief summary is that meat is the high status good, and meat spoils fast. Thus it behooves successful hunters to share their excess meat (which has low utility) in exchange for the expectation that they will get the return favor in high utility meat on days when they come back empty handed. We are programmed to feel guilty and to condemn and distrust others for not sharing excess. It makes genetic sense and matches anthropologogical observations.

    Long intro that we are programmed to be generous and to be suspicious of those with plenty that don’t share.

    Of course I would add that the other convenient thing about property is that it is easier to steal and “redistribute” than talent and more productive to do so by the redistributor. We know why Willy robs banks….

    One last thought. I have always felt that it is BS that those with lots of girl friends and no money get money redistributed from wealthy dorks with no chicks. There should be a law against it.

    Equal poontang for all!Report

    • Rose Woodhouse in reply to Roger says:

      Roger, see above comment I made. Do you think this is a vestigial evolutionary thing we should strive to overcome, or does it remain warranted?

      Also, why then the difference in our treatment for talent and looks?

      Intesting idea though. I would be curious about how women treat each other when status is accorded almost entirely on looks.Report

      • Roger in reply to Rose Woodhouse says:


        I question your premise that wealth is unusually correlated with luck. Of course, as you explain, all areas of inequality include a degree of luck. But in general wealth requires work, education, discipline, planning and risk.

        The next probe is with your use of virtue and morally negative. What makes an action morally virtuous or not? The answer is that we are measuring these based upon our evolved moral intuitions. In general, I would offer that wealth that was produced without harming anyone else is virtuous. We made the world a better place for our self and our family and made it worse for nobody. Morally negative work is something that was produced in a way that harmed another or that was taken from another. If you are using another definition though, please let me know.

        Assuming you roughly agree, we have just divided the world into positive sum actions which are morally virtuous — the world was improved and nobody was hurt. Or morally negative — wealth was created by harming others.

        In our ancestral environment, the world was predominantly zero sum. Every fruit I gathered was one less fruit you could gather. Thus if someone had a huge, disproportionate pile of fruit and would not share it, that was less fruit for everyone else. If he stole the fruit, it was even more reprehensible and zero sum.

        Our moral intuitions evolved to allow us to flourish in a small cooperative band in a predominantly zero sum world. That is why we have a feeling that something is wrong when people amass too much wealth. That is why we have a negative feeling toward zero sum actions committed to ourselves or others. Both destroy harmony and discourage “sharing” of excess, which is a positive sum action. Giving excess low value meat for future high value meat is a positive sum process that increases utility.

        What good would it do to a hunter gatherer to spend his or her moral indignation on protesting others talent or beauty? What they do concern themselves with is pulling down others status, for reasons mentioned above.

        Should we strive to overcome our disdain for wealth? Wealth created without hurting others or via helping others is virtuous and should be praised if we want prosperity. Wealth created by harming others should be condemned.

        So, what has changed? Humans have learned how to leverage and develop institutions and protocols for positive sum, win win wealth creation. Our intuitions have not and cannot keep up.Report

        • Rose Woodhouse in reply to Roger says:

          As far as I know, unless there’s an implication I have not considered, the idea that wealth is especially correlated with luck is not one of premises. I was saying that wealth, talent, and looks are all distributed partially through luck and partially through efforts on the part of their possessor.Perhaps to differing degrees, but that’s an empirical question to which I don’t have the answer. And we tend to feel that when we get wealth or talent or looks through our own work and effort, it is virtuous. Wealth, talent, and looks acquired another way (e.g., inheritance) is morally neutral or negative.

          COnsider the difference between a woman who loses weight via diet and exercise and one who married a rich guy and purchases liposuction. The former is admirable. The latter is not.Report

        • North in reply to Roger says:

          There’s certainly a significant luck factor to a lot of wealth creation. The children of wealthy or well connected individuals are granted enormous predispositions to obtaining (and creating) wealth by virtue of quality of upbringing, lack of need, availability of educational opportunity, built in networking with well heeled peers, legacy admissions to institutions as well as the brute force of access to (and eventual inheritance of) their parents and relatives capital.

          All of this is setting aside the more egalitarian forms of luck like having an fortuitous inspiration, a lucky break or a run of good luck that one is able to parlay into greater fortune.

          Now I certainly wouldn’t say success is entirely luck (I wouldn’t even say it’s the main factor) but the ideal that wealth is uncorrelated with luck is unrealistic. The expression “he was born on second base and thinks he hit a double” didn’t spring up out of nowhere.Report

          • Roger in reply to North says:


            Certainly luck is important. It is good to be lucky in sports too. The point is that it is usually insufficient. The thing about economic success is that it requires feedback and learning.

            The area that nobody has really addressed yet, is what do we do with those that are unlucky in the ability to learn and grasp feedback?Report

            • North in reply to Roger says:

              This speaks to your original question Roger. Since you have agreed that luck is important then it follows that luck is correlated to wealth very strongly (which it of course is).Report

  10. Kolohe says:

    Um, “Jeder nach seinen Fähigkeiten…” anyone? Redistribution of talent underpins just about the most famous Marxist slogan in history.

    (as for beauty, the greatest trick the Commies ever pulled was convincing young Americans that Russian women were all naturally homely – though to be fair, that was probably the capitalist imperialist pigs that actually did that bit of propoganda)Report

  11. BlaiseP says:

    Life isn’t fair. Good looking, tall people, especially white people, will get the breaks where others will not.

    That said, there’s plenty the rest of us can do to improve how we look. Most women don’t wear the right sized brassieres. Men who stroll around in slobbo attire will not be taken seriously and if they are, they become newsworthy exceptions to the rule. Bill Gates had to get married before someone had the guts to tell him to buy some deodorant and get his shirts pressed. His BO was famously horrid.

    A previous lover of mine lives and works in Hollywood. She’s a stylist, a no-nonsense Englishwoman with a sense of humour which cuts like a Sawzall through the Hollywood bullshit. All these surgically-altered people wander around in Los Angeles, that Gomorrah-upon-the-Pacific, providing her with endless fodder for her vicious and hilarious one-liners. Perfectly lovely people, before alteration. Thereafter, they become unhappy and professionally self-obsessed.

    Beauty, it seems to me, is a mask. Those who have good looks suffer from the rejection of objectification: it doesn’t matter how competent or kindly or talented they might be, they go to these casting calls and they must endure rejection philosophically, ultimately concluding the producer and director were looking for Something Else. Should success come along, they worry about being typecast. Child actors mature and few make the transition to adult actors successfully. There’s always a fresh crop of poor Brazilian girls being recruited to model. They never last long.

    Ultimately, beauty is a great deceiver. Glamour once meant a spell of transformation and imposture. Merlin’s spell puts a glamour upon Uther Pendragon, giving him the form of his enemy Gorlois and Arthur is conceived upon Ygraine. Merlin is ultimately betrayed by the beauty of Morgawse.

    Helen weeps for Paris as he walks onto the plains of Troy, the face that launched a thousand ships. Doomed Paris, who had earned the enmity of two goddesses by declaring a third most beautiful for the prize of the most beautiful woman alive. Beauty is a dangerous asset but more dangerous in its desiring.Report

  12. Plinko says:

    I can’t be the only person that thought about Greg Manikiw’s oft-cited paper on taxing tall people while reading this, right?

    Great post, Rose.


    • Rose Woodhouse in reply to Plinko says:

      Hadn’t read that! Neat! And am I correct in assuming that that is supposed to be a reductio?Report

      • Plinko in reply to Rose Woodhouse says:

        I’m still not sure entirely. If it is, I think it’s more a reductio on policy wonks’ elevation of tax efficiency toward the top of their preferred characteristics for an ideal tax scheme. There are few more efficient possible taxes than one on height, because it’s easy to measure and nigh-impossible to game. It also completely avoids the pitfall of creating any kind of disincentive for engaging in productive behavior that income taxation certainly does. For Manikiw, I think he wants people to be more aware of the impact of other types of redistributive taxation and their negative consequences.Report

      • James K in reply to Rose Woodhouse says:

        It is a reudctio, but Robin Hanson take sit seriously in any case.Report

        • Rose Woodhouse in reply to James K says:

          Well, it’s nice to know I’m not completely insane for even raising the question, and how could you not adore this sentence: “How the #@$! is it a sacred moral principle that a tax system weighing all these details shall not also consider height – so sacred that even relatively-amoral economists dare not question it?”Report

        • Plinko in reply to James K says:

          I knew someone out there did, Hanson makes sense as to someone I might have encountered saying so before. Thanks, James.Report

  13. Brandon Berg says:

    I thought of it, too. I think I actually had that idea before Mankiw published the paper. Not a tax on height specifically, but on natural endowments more generally.Report

    • Plinko in reply to Brandon Berg says:

      I think the points are very much related, I missed you earlier comment, sorry! I think the important point on height vs. other natural endowments is largely our ability to measure them accurately and our ability to game possible enforcement schemes.
      Of course, we might recoil morally on such taxation, I wonder if that’s more a flaw in our moral reasoning than anything else.Report

      • Brandon Berg in reply to Plinko says:

        One problem with the height tax is that while height correlates with income potential, the correlation is far from perfect. So some guy’s going to get screwed over because he’s tall but unintelligent, unathletic, and socially awkward. So he has a characteristic that correlates with income potential but doesn’t actually have that income potential.

        Of course, the income tax screws over people who overachieve through hard work, but at least they can afford to pay it. It also subsidizes people who underachieve either through inadequate effort or through intentionally dropping out. I wonder if a tax based on the prestige of your college might work better. It’s gameable, but it’s not clear that it’s worth gaming.Report

  14. Dan Miller says:

    How about this–the degree of inequality in beauty and talent tends to be relatively small compared to inequality in wealth? Being beautiful or talented at something can get you better treatment in society, no doubt–but this treatment is naturally limited, unless the person parlays it into inequality of wealth. For instance, a beautiful person might get treated nicer at the DMV or even get better raises at work; but unless they parlay it into modeling work or something like that, the gap in treatment between the very beautiful and the very ugly will remain small relative to the gap between the very poor and the very rich. I’m not that rich and not that beautiful, but Bill Gates has a net worth that’s millions of times greater than mine. There is no level of physical beauty that he or anyone could possess that would give him a greater advantage than billions of dollars.Report

  15. Michael Drew says:

    I think there is merit to the abstract argument – why would we see direct compensation for these inherited characteristics as less justified than redistribution of acquired wealth, since in the case of the acquisition, there is at least an element of affirmative action (not that kind) that has led to it, in addition to luck and advantages of starting position? Certainly.

    But I think the reason that this doesn’t happen is rather clear. Do we actually wish into existence the systems that would be necessary to implement it? Do even those who might benefit wish for that? Would you submit your likeness to the state for the purpose of being designated below some standard that qualified you for compensation? Would you submit to a state test of your aptitudes in order to get on such a list? (For that matter, how could such a test to be designed to be resistant to intentional failing? I suppose it could be disguised as something else…)

    I will say, however, that it could be argued that a form of what you describe is in place. I realize this may hit a bit close to home, but it is actually the case that most states (or is it federally? I can’t recall now) have laws that require that children who have certain minimum degrees of learning disability be publicly provided with educational services that come at a cost that is much greater than the cost of providing the services that it is mandated that “typical” kids must receive. This isn’t cash compensation, but (public officials perhaps flatter themselves to contend that) it is a provision of services of real and differential value that are meant to equalize differences in innate aptitude.Report

    • Rose in reply to Michael Drew says:

      Oh, definitely. My kiddo costs all y’all (especially locals) a pretty penny.

      That said, there are some attempts to compensate for “blameless” talent differences for the perfect-brained and typical-genomed. Head Start, busing, community college initiatives, etc. My state university must accept people who graduated at the top of their class in any school district in the state. Which amounts to some interesting differences in preperation for college.

      So compensation for talent happens in a disorganized and scattershot way, but it’s a more leftist idea than progressive taxation or Medicaid. And again, looks are ridiculous to consider. It’s not even brought up (well, there is that Mankiw paper, but I assume it’s a reductio).

      As for the embarrassment of using it, I’ve had that thought about Medicaid or food stamps, too. It’s probably even more embarrassing, though.Report

      • Michael Drew in reply to Rose says:

        Are Head Start and busing aptitude-based? I had thought they were rather exclusively economic and economic-geographic respectively. But I think you’re right that the school system does generally respond with more resources for kids with greater educational needs, even short of the formal “special ed” designation threshold.

        I do think that people are okay, if a bit embarrassed, to have to essentially say, ‘I’ve gotten myself into a situation where I can’t make it on my own right now,’ (i.e I think that how much people really feel they lose their dignity when they say this is somewhat overargued by opponents of welfare programs, though some do feel it keenly), while I think it’s pretty far beyond a typical person’s faculties of maintaining their self-respect to go to the government and just flat-out say ‘I lack the basic aptitude to do as well in this economy as I think our overall economic flushness makes me entitled to,’ or ‘I think my lack of good looks impedes my ability to as well as someone with the same abilities but better looks can do and I want compensation for it,’ even though at least the latter is indisputably very true in a very large number of cases.

        (The former is rather closer to the truth more often than I think we’d like to think – i.e. a lot of people really do lack the ability to do very well, and the truth is just that we think they deserve a level of material comfort that seems not punitive in light of the overall wealth of the society, but it’s important on all sides for various reasons to maintain the possible-fiction that the issue is one of temporary adjustment to changing labor demand or of temporary misfortune, etc. rather than basic inaptitude.)Report

        • Kazzy in reply to Michael Drew says:

          Head Start is not aptitude-based. Some bussing programs are, but often in the opposite direction: a major criticism of some programs (such as Boston’s METCO program, if it is still in existence) is that they skim the “creme de la creme” from already-struggling schools. Kids do have to apply into that program, in which they are bussed out to higher-performing suburban schools while their classmates are left without peer models from which to learn. And, of course, this greatly skews test scores, which are the end-all, be-all at this point.

          Generally speaking, most school districts do a good to great job teaching elite students and a good to great job teaching students with identifies special needs. It is the ones in the middle who are most often lost in the shuffle. Which is a damn shame, if you ask me.Report

          • Michael Drew in reply to Kazzy says:

            Yep. Agreed.Report

            • Rose in reply to Michael Drew says:

              I take busing, Head Start, to be compensation for the differences in talent that will emerge due to environmental deprivation of a poor upbringing, not for a talent difference that already exists.

              Quality of special ed varies insanely, depending on diagnosis (whether it is autism or dev. delay), location (both at school district level and state level). Where we live, my kid has every resource thrown at him. If we lived 5 miles away in DC, his education would be drastically different. Poor urban kids with severe dev. delay but no autism are not in a pretty picture.Report

              • Kazzy in reply to Rose says:

                Are you in MoCo?Report

              • Rose Woodhouse in reply to Kazzy says:

                Yes. Thank you citizens of Potomac for funding my kid! We are positively rolling in services here. I actually turned down some of the offered early intervention services because it seemed excessive. We’ll see how I feel after his first IEP meeting, though!Report

              • Kazzy in reply to Rose Woodhouse says:

                Nice! I used to live in Bethesda/Rockville/North Bethesda/whatever the hell they call it nowadays. I worked at a private school in the district. I only attended one MoCo IEP meeting over in SS. Was a little less than enthused, but nothing out of the ordinary.Report

              • Rose Woodhouse in reply to Kazzy says:

                Neato! Hi neighbor! We live in SS. We moved from DC (Adams Morgan) before he was born, a fact for which I am nearly daily grateful.Report

              • Kazzy in reply to Kazzy says:

                Nice! Be careful with the circle of death there!Report

  16. James K says:

    Great article Rose. Do you read Robin Hanson by any chance? I know he’s written on this topic in the past.Report

  17. Kazzy says:

    “So I am left wondering this. Redistribution of wealth is supposed to compensate for the morally neutral aspect of the acquisition of wealth. Why is redistribution or compensation for lack of talent considered significantly more leftist or drastic than wealth?”

    1.) Wealth is far more objectively measured than talent and even more so looks.
    2.) We can, or at least believe we can, reasonably account for wealth inequality. If you have $100 and I have $10, we can simply each have $55. If you are 5′-8″ with piercing eyes, a perfectly symmetrical face, flowing hair, and ideal proportions and I am 5′-4″ with a lazy eye, crooked nose, male pattern baldness, and beer belly… how do we correct for that? Going even further, if I am born with one arm and you are born with two, should you give me half of one of yours?

    What I’m really getting at here is that wealth CAN be redistributed equally (whether it should is another question, obviously). Looks and talent CAN’T be. We can account for that, using money or something else as a proxy to compensate those who seem to have a dearth of either. But we can’t actually equalize them. At least not yet.

    As to whether we should be or it is reasonable to attempt to do so… as I’ve said elsewhere, I’m leery of most government attempts to address inequality. I do think certain steps to equalize opportunity (which can often end up being unequally distributed as a function of looks, even when looks have nothing to do with the situation at hand), I think there are some reasonable steps that can be taken, primarily in the world of education. But I’m a bit of a homer for solving problems through better education… 😀Report

    • Rose Woodhouse in reply to Kazzy says:

      Well, one could be compensated for the average financial loss due to that lack of talent or lack of beauty. There are at least some data on this.

      Again, I’m not saying I want to do this. T’m just musing on the principled difference between the three.Report

      • Brandon Berg in reply to Rose Woodhouse says:

        To some extent, income redistribution already does this. If talent and beauty cause you to make more money, the government will tax you more heavily, and use it to subsidize those who make less money, who are disproportionately less attractive and talented. The problem is that there’s no way to disentangle the effects of natural endowments and hard work. When we tax based on income, we’re taxing some combination of natural endowments and effort. When we subsidize those with low income, we’re subsidizing some combination of unenviable endowments and sloth.

        We also don’t even attempt to tax the nonpecuniary benefits of natural endowments or the drawbacks of lacking them. We don’t tax the good-looking or socially gifted men who get laid a lot while slacking off and working part time at a record shop, but we do tax the hell out of the ugly nerd who makes good money but doesn’t have a girlfriend.Report

  18. Pinky says:

    Rose, I disagree with your first premise: “The reason anyone has an urge to redistribute wealth at all is because it is assumed that, to one degree or another, one’s wealth or lack of wealth may be a morally neutral fact.” Imagine a person who works hard and earns everything he gets – a Frank “Grimey” Grimes, if you know The Simpsons. He would still have a moral responsibility to take care of the less fortunate.

    I’m thinking in terms of Cathoic social teaching here, but either political party and most every personal philosophy would argue that we have some responsibility for our fellow man. The Declaration of Independence talks about self-evident unalienable rights, including the right to life. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights recognizes the right to food, shelter, clothing, medical care, and basic education. The quality or amount of these things may be debated, and there may be practical limitations on the actualization of these rights. But the notion of these things as human rights implies that there is a level beneath which a human being cannot be allowed to fall. That is a sufficient argument for some amount of redistribution of wealth.

    There is no human right to talent, innate intelligence, or looks. There is no human right to money. There is a human right to the necessities of life. If I have more wealth than I need to attain the necessities of life, I have some obligation to use some of that wealth to meet the unmet needs of others, to the extent that there are unmet needs and to the extent that they can be met through outside assistance.Report

    • Rose in reply to Pinky says:

      Yes, that is mostly true. And maybe that explains some of the difference in our difference in attitude toward wealth on one hand, and talent and looks on the other.

      But there is certainly some hesitation in general to give someone who is poor through lack of practice of a virtue (e.g., not working when capable) or being very imprudent.

      And there is still the difference between looks and talent.Report

    • Rose Woodhouse in reply to Pinky says:

      And I changed the sentence in the OP to reflect your criticism.Report

  19. Audrey the Liberal says:

    One way we can compensate the ugly is to force people to listen to the shrill, impotent wailing of the den-zines of Jezebel.Report

  20. Sam M says:

    “Besides, compensation for lack of talent is considered a matter of fairness, not a matter of maximization of wealth or happiness.”

    It seems like this keeps veering between “redistribution” and “compensation for.” These seem like different things. One reason we distribute money is because… it’s possible. A poor person becomes less poor when we give him money. He can buy things. But you can’t take 30 percent of George Clooney’s looks and give them to some ugly dude. There is no way to make the ugly person less ugly. There is no way to take 25 percent of Adele’s voice and give it to someone who wants to be a better singer.

    Your solution then becomes to “compensate them for it.” But these things are nearly impossible to monetize. And monetizing them doesn’t get at the whole cost of being ugly or untalented.Report

  21. Yasmine Wilson says:


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