January 27, 2005

Closer to Reality Than They Thought?

By Ian

So, the discussion begun by LibertarianGirl and followed up by Catallarchy might have been a bit more prescient than even they thought.

Lawmakers Look to Tax Plastic Surgery

Lawmakers trying to plump up the bottom line are considering a "vanity tax" on cosmetic surgery and Botox injections in Washington, Illinois and other states.

Plastic surgeons and their patients say the idea is just plain ugly.

The case made for taxing these procedures is not the same one advanced by LG above. In this case, the notion is that these are voluntary exchanges (elective surgery), and that they can be taxed as such. It's also a blatant case of pointing the tools of state at a group that is unlikely to organize to prevent the tax from occuring. How likely are people to protest in the streets for untaxed tummy-tucks? And how easy would it be to make these people look foolish by simply branding them as examples of vanity gone amuck?

Just for reference, here are just a few statistics on plastic surgery (both reconstructive as well as cosmetic).

Two thoughts on this. First, I have a general dislike for levying taxes simply because the state or federal government feels it needs more money and can locate an easy target. Second, the cause for such taxes as suggested by LG is a bit troubling once it's extended to what I think is a logical conclusion. If these procedures should be taxed because they ultimately create a cost for those who don't get the procedure (that is, the women who do not get augmentations are now less desireable in the pool of potential mates), then the same analysis should extend to those who are simply more attractive by birth.

While I'm grateful that I've found someone in this world that doesn't mind looking at me for extended periods of time, I harbor no illusions that I appear as appealing as another Scottish lad I might envy in the looks department. Clearly, then, I'm suffering a cost due to handsome men's mere existence. Plastic surgery for some might raise their particular value and lower that for others in relative terms, but it's not as though we all began on a level playing field. In fact, if we are to assume a single axis of attractiveness, with people more or less randomly dispersed across it, then the movement of numerous men and women up and down the line does little in overall terms.

Consider it this way: not only are people attractive on some objective points, they are more or less attractive based on a relative measure. If we all look like neanderthals, then we might all be kinda goofy looking. But some of us would be less goofy looking than others. So, since a "mean attractiveness" is heavily dependent on relative standing and is calculated by looking at, you know, the population that we're interested, then if the whole group of people got better looking (all women got rhinoplasty, all men got liposuction), the mean would simply move. Low cost, safe procedures available to all would, in the long run, simply result in another sort of equilibrium mixture of attractiveness. Shift everyone up and a similar problem still exists: while you might have a washboard stomach after surgery, someone else already had that naturally but got an eye-lift and is now still a bit ahead of you in the rankings. Untaxed, the market is left to sort out people for whom their standing is important enough to correct via money.

As such things so often are, a plastic surgery tax might end up being distortionary, in that it places the procedure out of reach for the less well-off in the group that would choose to have a procedure in order to move up on the axis (assuming "up" is better and that the world still has some sort of homogeneous taste for attractiveness), but has little effect on those people for whom the expenditure is well within their reach. Since people well-off enough in relative terms to not mind an extra 10% on top of the cost of a pair of butt-implants are likely to be better fed and better educated, and thus better groomed and better looking in general, then we'd expect to see a clustering of ever-more-attractive people at the high end of the distribution. A fattening of the tail from a thinning of thighs, if you will.

The tax, then, has the potential to make more people worse off in this case, since the solidification of a "pretty class" will necessarily shift the mean (that is, the mean moves so that higher and higher levels of attractiveness are now considered "average" relative to the position of the average before), while simultaneously denying a whole group of people the ability to correct the imbalance.

My solution? Government subsidies on cosmetic surgery. New tummies and boobs for everyone!

[N.B. Never mind the fact that "plastic surgery" as a category also includes the very valuable work of reconstructive surgery for such things as scars, burns, bone damage, maxillofacial issues, laceration repair, and more. To call it all "vanity" simply to make it taxable strikes me as lawmakers being callous.]

Posted at January 27, 2005 04:20 PM


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» Did lawmakers read my breast implant post? from Libertarian Girl
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» How about a tax on politicians instead? from Tom Rants
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