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Hair Today, Fairness Tomorrow

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It is a mystery to me why egalitarians have failed to decry the unequal and unfair distribution of one of the most important assets in all of society. It is all the more perplexing because the unfairness of the distribution is plain for all to see. Walk down any street, and there it is. Toleration of this egregious violation of simple equity should offend anyone with a modicum of decency.

The asset to which I refer is hair. Is anything in life bestowed or withheld so arbitrarily? Look around. You see men and women with luxurious manes and thick curly locks. Then you see people whose hair has thinned so much that their very scalps are on display. But as lamentable as that condition may be, they are the envy of those who have little or no hair at all.

The amount of hair is not the only matter of gross injustice. Quality is as much an issue as quantity. The privileged ones have lustrous tresses, full of body and shine. The underprivileged in this department must long suffer lifeless and dull mops. Life can be so unfair.

I realize what the sticklers for precision are thinking. They are objecting to the characterization of the distribution of hair as unfair. How, they are asking, can something that is not the outcome of anyone’s deliberate decision be either fair or unfair in any primary sense? Justice is the product of particular actions, not of impersonal processes.

They use the same argument for income distribution. They like to cite Robert Nozick, who argued in Anarchy, State, and Utopia that in the marketplace, the “distribution” of income is not decided by anyone. Instead, it is the product of countless decisions and transactions, each of which is justly made by people controlling their own resources. The overall configuration of incomes is not determined like a child’s allowance. It is an unintended consequence of people’s transactions. As such, it can be considered just only in the sense that those transactions were justly undertaken. But there can be no moral judgment of the outcome apart from our judgment of the process.

By the same token, the critics will say, the distribution of hair is not subject to moral judgment apart from the process that produced it. But since that process has nothing to do with human action at all, moral terms are completely misapplied in the matter.

That’s what the critics will say, and it’s a powerful argument. But it doesn’t change the fact that some people have more and better hair than others, and that’s not fair.

All of that would make little difference were hair not such an important value in our society. But some people judge others, at least at first, by the hair on their heads. Other things being equal, some will get better jobs, even superior mates, because they possess an attribute for which they are not the least bit responsible. Is it proper that some should prosper because they have been blessed with an advantage that came from an accident of birth? The answer is obvious.

The welfare state exists to ensure that people do not suffer disadvantages that are no fault of their own. How it has managed to neglect the Great Hair Disparity is inexplicable. If there were no remedy for that injustice, we might have to simply endure it. But there are things that a good society can do to rectify such a wrong. Modern technology has produced a number of ways for people to have the hair that nature cheated them out of. Today we not only have wigs and toupees but also transplants, weaves, and substances such as Rogaine that can actually grow hair.

To paraphrase John Stuart Mill, we have solved the problem of hair production. Now we must move with dispatch to solve the problem of hair distribution. All that we need is the political will and the compassion.

The top hair technology is expensive. The rich can afford the best. But that is not good enough. It is wrong that low-income people have to settle for those cheap and phony-looking wigs that are so often the butt of ridicule. Let’s face it, when it comes to hair replacement, we have a two-tiered society. That is wrong.

Surely in a rich and benevolent society such as ours, no one should have to go without hair care or have to accept a cheap replacement merely because he can’t afford better. It would be so easy to establish a federal program to provide those means to the hair-underprivileged. For a modest expenditure by federal standards, everyone in need would be provided with hair replacements or hair-growing medication.

Before the objections begin to be pitched, let me add that there is no need for a big expensive bureaucracy. It would be foolish to set up a federal agency to dispense directly the various hair-loss remedies. A bureaucracy would be riddled with corruption and inefficiency. For example, administrators might practice favoritism in contracting with providers for the various remedies. Instead, it would be preferable to run the program in an efficient, market-oriented way. That can mean only one thing: vouchers.

Needy people would be entitled to a voucher that could be used only for some form of hair remedy. The program would demonstrate how government and the market can be creatively combined in the service of justice.

The hair voucher program would be doubly means-tested. First, it would be available only to those who lack the financial means for attaining better hair. Second, the value of the voucher would be determined by the amount of hair the recipient needs. That will keep waste to a minimum and permit the delivery of assistance to those who need it most.

I can already hear the objections. Some critics will say that the voucher plan will insidiously affect the private hair-replacement industry. Obviously, the voucher authority can’t give out money to just anyone. Standards will be necessary to ensure that the money goes to responsible providers of hair replacement. Those providers will have to demonstrate that they are financially responsible. They will also have to show that they are using industry-accepted techniques. We wouldn’t want the public’s money going to fly-by-night outfits.

But such commonsense safeguards do not mean that this private industry will be corrupted. These are simply protections for the hair-needy. Surely, there is no need to worry about frivolous rules or, worse, regulations designed to benefit special interests. If the Congress tries add such regulations, we’ll fight it.

I have no idea what such a voucher program would cost. But I am confident it can be kept to a manageable level. That’s why we have public leaders and policy experts.

If the program is deemed too expensive, however, there is a backup position. We could mandate that insurance companies include hair replacement on their list of covered services. That is being done in some states. But the mandate is far too limited. The hair replacement has to be related to a serious condition, such as cancer, the treatment for which causes loss of hair. What we need is a uniform national program that addresses everyone in need. The beauty of this idea is that no federal spending would be necessary. The program in effect would be free.

I’m sure critics will point out that such a program can’t really be free. The costs, they will say, would be hidden in everyone’s insurance premiums and in the price of hair replacement. They will also say that people who don’t want to buy hair replacements shouldn’t have to pay for them. But that is precisely why we have a welfare state — to transfer money in the least visible ways to those we want to help. Besides, when it comes to making policy, appearance is more important than reality.

The same critics will say that hair for the needy should be left to private charity. Maybe private groups can raise enough. I don’t know. But I do know this: we compassionate people are not willing to leave this to chance.

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    Sheldon Richman is vice president of The Future of Freedom Foundation and editor of FFF's monthly journal, Future of Freedom. For 15 years he was editor of The Freeman, published by the Foundation for Economic Education in Irvington, New York. He is the author of FFF's award-winning book Separating School & State: How to Liberate America's Families; Your Money or Your Life: Why We Must Abolish the Income Tax; and Tethered Citizens: Time to Repeal the Welfare State. Calling for the abolition, not the reform, of public schooling. Separating School & State has become a landmark book in both libertarian and educational circles. In his column in the Financial Times, Michael Prowse wrote: "I recommend a subversive tract, Separating School & State by Sheldon Richman of the Cato Institute, a Washington think tank... . I also think that Mr. Richman is right to fear that state education undermines personal responsibility..." Sheldon's articles on economic policy, education, civil liberties, American history, foreign policy, and the Middle East have appeared in the Washington Post, Wall Street Journal, American Scholar, Chicago Tribune, USA Today, Washington Times, The American Conservative, Insight, Cato Policy Report, Journal of Economic Development, The Freeman, The World & I, Reason, Washington Report on Middle East Affairs, Middle East Policy, Liberty magazine, and other publications. He is a contributor to the The Concise Encyclopedia of Economics. A former newspaper reporter and senior editor at the Cato Institute and the Institute for Humane Studies, Sheldon is a graduate of Temple University in Philadelphia. He blogs at Free Association. Send him e-mail.