Monday, July 14, 2014

Facial Justice: A Dystopian Classic of Beauty, Envy and Equality with a Solid Basis in Economics

I spent last week reading about beauty—not from the perspective of poetry or art history, but from
that of economics and social commentary.

The first of two books I read on the subject was Beauty Pays by my old classmate Daniel Hammermesh—a brisk, popular survey of research by the author and others on the question of why attractive people are more successful in the labor market. When I mentioned that book to my wife, the political scientist and ethicist of our family, she said I ought also to read L. P. Hartley’s Facial Justice, a 1960 dystopian novel in the genre of George Orwell’s 1984, but funnier, or Kurt Vonnegut’s story “Harrison Bergeron,” but more subtle. Although the literary styles of Hartley and Hammermesh couldn’t be more different, they share the premise that beauty is scarce and valuable.

The value of beauty

In Hartley’ post-World War III England, life is grim, but beauty still pays. The good jobs go to the good-looking Alphas, while the homely Gammas are lucky if they can find work as temporary subs for the better looking. The majority of average-lookers, the Betas, resent the Alphas and condescend to the Gammas. Most sinister of all, only Alphas can aspire to enter the privileged ranks of inspectors, who help the Dictator run the place. The heroine of the novel is a “failed Alpha”—a pretty girl who has just missed the cut to become an inspector because, she thinks, her nose is just a bit too retroussé. >>>Read more

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