Rob Lowe, one of the stars of the greatest TV show ever made* has drawn our attention to a dilemma for leftist politics. He says: "There's this unbelievable bias and prejudice against quote-unquote good-looking people."
In one big sense this is plain false. There's abundant evidence around the world that there's discrimination in favour of good-looking people; they earn substantially more (pdf) than ugly ones. I doubt if Mr Lowe would have had so successful a career if he looked like Michael Gove**.
And yet on the other hand, there's a grain of truth in what he says. It's plausible that good-looking actors are overlooked for some interesting roles. And attractive people, I'm told, do suffer some inconveniences: being thought stupid (the "dumb blonde" myth); unwanted sexual advances; and being shunned by jealous rivals***.
Mr Lowe is focussing upon the partial costs of being handsome, and overlooking the fact that, overall, there are big net benefits to being so. This is quite natural: it's the grit in the shoe that gets noticed. And it's common; we see the same thing when some men complain about being victimized by feminism and when plutocrats whine about being persecuted. People who are advantaged overall can complain about their lot because they take for granted their many advantages but are irked by slight nuisances. It's this habit that is challenged by the phrase "check your privilege".****
However, if the privileged are apt to play up their complaints and play down their advantages, the poor can do the opposite. A combination of adapative preferences and ideology means they might resign themselves to their plight and so not complain sufficiently. As Amartya Sen has said:
Deprived people tend to come to terms with their deprivation because of the sheer necessity of survival, and they may, as a result, lack the courage to demand any radical change, and may even adjust their desires and expectations to what they unambitiously see as feasible (Development as Freedom, p62-63)
This brings me to the dilemma for the left. Most leftists today, for good and obvious historical reasons, are democrats. However, democracy - at least in the sense of heeding the voice of the people - can be anti-egalitarian insofar as it causes politicians to heed the noisy but minor complaints of the privileged whilst ignoring the bigger but silent plight of the genuinely worst-off. The tension between democracy and justice might be greater than leftists realize.
* Here's why.
*** An attractive single friend of mine says other mothers are hostile to her at the school gates for fear she'll steal their husbands.
*** The phrase has a whiff of sanctimonious self-righteousness about it: note that it is "check your privilege", not "check my privilege".