Viewpoint: Gloria Quixote on the Rampage

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If ignorance is bliss, then Southern California's ineffable Miss Gloria Allred must be ecstatic indeed. For this self-appointed defender of damsels in distress has made a career out of such litigious absurdities as a lawsuit against a retail chain for its heinous practice of placing boys' and girls' toys in separate aisles, a lawsuit against a dry cleaner because it charged more for women's blouses than for men's shirts, and a lawsuit against a restaurant that reserved its private and romantic booths for heterosexual couples only.

Recently, she could be found risking life and limb in battle with yet another bastion of masculine bigotry. The local business club? The government of the sovereign state of Saudi Arabia? Hardly. Miss Allred had chosen instead a far more insidious practitioner of "sex discrimination on its face," to wit, the infamous Yellow Balloon children's hair salon of west Los Angeles, against which, you guessed it, a lawsuit was filed, with Miss Allred as lawyer.

Precisely what was Yellow Balloon's crime against humanity? After all, when I last took my children, unlimited animal crackers were offered to all without regard to race, creed, religion, or sexual orientation. Well, in this day and age, that's not good enough; Yellow Balloon's crime was its practice of charging more for girls' haircuts than for those of boys, "even if their haircut takes less time and less expertise."

Now, anyone who has lived in the real world knows that, on average, girls' haircuts are more time-consuming and intricate than those of boys. Market prices cannot make allowances for the infinitude of differences between individuals; market processes therefore tend to drive prices toward roughly efficient levels. In markets where it is practical to do so, individual negotiation smooths whatever rough edges may remain. That is obviously impractical in the haircut business.

Moreover, little thought is required to discern the implications of Miss Allred's pricing standards were they to be implemented everywhere. Equality of prices for girls' and boys' haircuts would create, on average, a subsidy from boys to girls, because boys would be charged too much for haircuts and girls too little. The market would not permit this situation to prevail; salons soon would specialize in either boys' or girls' haircuts, thus leading to the very segregation of the sexes purportedly rejected by advocates of sexual "equality."

This absurd outcome is not difficult to predict, thus suggesting that "equality" is not the true goal of these fanatics. Instead, their aim is a politicization of all aspects of everyday life; such bureaucratization would increase greatly the extent of governmental control over individual behavior. It is this control that is the real objective of the Gloria Allreds of this world, whose only solution to any perceived problem is government coercion.

In short, it is intimidation that is the name of the game. How else can we explain such phenomena as the sidewalk press conference held in front of the Yellow Balloon, without even the courtesy of prior notification of its owner? How else can we explain Miss Allred's demand that the owner admit—in writing—past "discrimination"? (To her credit, the owner refused, although she ended up settling out of court to avoid further legal expenses.)

Does Miss Allred have nothing better to do with her time? Apparently not: bullying such individuals as the owner of the Yellow Balloon, who is attempting only to earn an honest living, is precisely one means through which political power can be enhanced. Except in degree, is there really a fundamental difference between such tactics and the white paint used in 1930s Germany?

In short, more—much more—is involved here than mere excess in the pursuit of "justice" by advocates for women and the other myriad competitors for oppressed status. This excess is the result in part of competition for publicity and influence among "rights" proponents, that is, those seeking greater political power. That they have found it necessary to concentrate upon such silliness as children's toys and haircuts speaks volumes about the small actual role of "discrimination" in modern American life. Hence, the ever-greater and more absurd lengths to which these extremists must travel in order to achieve ever-more microscopic ends.

Given this, what explains the ability of such pests as Miss Allred not only to command attention but actually to prevail in judicial and bureaucratic proceedings? One answer is that it is precisely the judiciary and the bureaucracy—our least democratic and accountable institutions—that facilitate the exercise of power by extremists. This is only one reason that markets ought generally to be preferred over political processes and that decisionmaking by elected officials ought generally to be preferred over that by judges and bureaucrats.

In any case, during a simpler time, such silliness as that represented by the Yellow Balloon episode would have been dismissed by sensible people as the work of mere cranks, deserving only of a freshly laundered straightjacket. Modern times, unfortunately, have witnessed the rise to respectability of sheer inanity, given full credence by the television cameras. This unwillingness to classify obvious stupidity as such is a measure of the depths in which modern democratic processes have allowed themselves to become mired.

Benjamin Zycher is an economist in Canoga Park, California. From 1981 through 1983 he was a senior staff economist at the Council of Economic Advisers.

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