Wednesday, September 18, 2013

Here She Comes, Miss Rent Contest.

My regular readers could easily be forgiven for concluding that when I use the term "rents", I mean "political rents." I write about political rents because they tend to be the most salient sort for what I care about. But a rent is simply a return to ownership of a scarce resource. The chief difference between a political rent and other sorts is that a political rent is conjured from dust and spit in the chambers of men to whom have accrued the thaumaturgy of statecraft, an Eblis O'Shaughnessy wrung out of the pleas of constituents.

But are not other rent contests no less contrived? There's nothing in the state of nature that insists on one and only one Stanley Cup or welterweight champion belt or Rubik's Cube Memorial Ziggurat or whatever. I don't actually follow any of this stuff. The point is, endowments of the land and its resources are the joint product of nature's bounty and humanity's industry. Contests like "world's fastest sheep shearer" have nothing so ever to do with the distribution of the surf and the wind, but rather sprout from the rich loam of human imagination alone.

Michael Giberson writes in a Facebook thread about the recent flap over comments on the ethnicity of the 2013 Miss America winner: "don't ban Miss America, but why celebrate or even pay attention to a contest to pick the prettiest young woman in the land? It encourages otherwise talent and ambitious young women to devote their efforts into zero-sum contest for looking pretty instead of working on something of more lasting value."

I'm inclined to agree, even though I've myself been voted "the prettiest girl in IB" by a college of my peers. It's obvious there's an opportunity cost to preening for pageants or for following hoop dreams or for flogging your headshot in the hopes you'll be discovered by a casting director on the mean streets of LA. But in each of these cases, it's less obvious that there are any meaningful net external costs. Sure, by perfecting your makeup technique or your jump shot or your dressage, you're not contributing to the development of your own durable human capital, but it's hard to generate moral outrage against folks who typically don't end up a public burden. If a young woman wants to squander her time on leaning how to walk elegantly in heels or a young man wants to squander his time figuring out how to consistently pick up a 7-10 split (infinitive), it is my impression that you'd need to push on another margin to raise the public hackle. Becoming the world's faster frankfurter scarfer strikes me as more euvoluntary than becoming the world's heftiest dwarf tosser.

There's something close to a unanimity rule when it comes to pageant participation (as in market transactions generally). The same can't be said for taxi medallions or hairdressing licenses. Yes, these young women could be doing something else with their time, but I think the libertarians actually manage to channel (for a change) broader public opinion when they cite the absence of coercion (real coercion a la Hume and Hayek) in the rent contests arising from voluntary association. The key evidence here seems to be the pointed lack of legislative meddling in the by-laws of these voluntary associations.

And the real fruit is in the exceptions to this absence, like when Congress has hearings on performance-enhancing drugs in Major League Baseball. What's the pedestrian moral intuition there? 

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Do you have suggestions on where we could find more examples of this phenomenon?