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I see via Stuff that women have to pay more for haircuts.  This is true – in fact there are a number of service related areas where the woman’s version of that service costs more than the man’s version.  Undeniably, we are seeing price discrimination at work.

Now I’m not terribly against price discrimination – if the price discrimination is taking place based on a freely obsevable factor such as sex, then the outcome is efficient … and to be honest, price discrimination is going to become a larger part of our lives over time.  Now this doesn’t mean its fair, or unfair … in order to understand that we have to apply a series of “value judgments” about fairness.

Let’s look at the example of haircuts.  It is true women are charged more than men.  This happens due to women, on average, valuing the service more than men and generally being “less responsive” to the price.  Furthermore, even for the same haircut for a man and a woman, the service offered is not the same – not just because the women values the haircut subjectively “more” but because the physical service that is offered is usually different.

The hairdressing industry is an interesting one as well, it is hardly a place where “competition” issues exist – there are hairdressers everywhere.  As a result, a hairdressers ability to charge a premium above cost is severally limited – although it is the case that women value a haircut more than men, the very competitive nature of the hairdressing industry and the existence of a price gap seems to indicate that the “haircuts” a woman gets costs more than the haircuts a man gets.

If this is the case, I struggle to see how we could view this as unfair.  If we were to “ban” such price discrimination based on sex male haircuts would have to cross-subsidise womens cuts – to me this sounds like much more sexist pricing.

There is also the issue of choice.  Say that, somehow, all the 100 million hairstylists in Wellington were able to inforce an OPEC type relationship – and thereby collude on the price of haircuts to women.  I don’t understand what is to prevent:

  1. Entry of another hairdresser – the fixed costs seem reasonably low.
  2. Women going to a mens barber – a lot of mens barbers in Wellington wouldn’t care … if you were getting the same cut as a guy

I think this specific example shows how careful we have to be about criticising “price discrimination”.  Such discrimination is often a good thing – even given its negative sounding name.