There must be something about nail salons that causes them to price discriminate more actively than other businesses. Recently a story made headlines about a nail salon charging higher prices for overweight customers, and now there is another story about a nail salon charging men higher prices. The former is potentially justified on a cost basis, e.g. heavier customers wear out the chair faster, but I can’t see any reason why men would cost more than women to do a manicure for. Since cost does not appear to be the issue, it must be the case that the average willingness to pay is higher for men then for women.

The story is that Jimmy Bell went into a nail salon to get a manicure and was charged $4 extra for being a man. Being that Jimmy Bell is, as the Washing Post put it, a “lawyer with a knack for the headline-making case” he obviously could not tolerate this grievance and is suing the salon for $200,000.

Whether or not Jimmy Bell is a crybaby and a waste of everyone’s time and money is an issue I’ll leave aside, because I’m more interested in where society and the legal system will draw the line on issues like this.

For starters, there appears to be a significant stigma against charging different prices to the obese, and somewhat less of a stigma against charging to different genders, whereas nobody seems to have any objection to senior citizens and children’s discounts. This is somewhat counterintuitive, as you would expect people to be more against charging based upon something upon which we have absolutely no control, such as age or gender, rather than something over which we have some control, like weight.

One explanation for this counterintuitive belief may be that people are more willing to tolerate discriminations that are framed as discounts rather than penalties. Senior citizens and children get discounts, whereas men and the overweight are charged a premium at a nail salon. These are functionally the same, but the framing is different.

People may also be more tolerable of discrimination that is widely shared rather than singling out some minority. So a premium for a man in a nail salon (where men are a minority) is less acceptable than a premium for men at a gym, where the gender mix is more equal.

Intuitively, most people don’t object to Ladies Night discounts at bars, although enough have taken the trouble to bring lawsuits that it is illegal in several states. California’s Unruh Civil Rights Act has been ruled as prohibiting Ladies’ Night at a nightclub and Ladies’ Day at a carwash, and the Gender Tax Repeal Act of 1995 specifically outlawed any gender based price discrimination. Californians, it seems, have something against price discrimination. Other states, like Illinois, Pennsylvania, and Washington have allowed it.

In contrast, there is a generally widespread agreement that businesses should not be allowed to price discriminate against people on the basis of skin color, although some libertarians will dissent (cue Bryan Caplan to defend race based discrimination).

So is there a clear line about what kind of price discrimination is acceptable and which isn’t? Some states like California have taken a very hard-line against price discrimination, putting the burden of proof upon businesses to provide cost based justifications. For example, auto insurance companies are forbidden from setting rates for an individual based on anything other than three factors: their driving record, how many miles they drive, and their years of driving experience. Others states, in contrast, are more lenient.

Libertarians who support businesses’ right to discriminate have the advantage of a clear-cut and unambiguous line, whereas those who object have to explain why some is okay and some isn’t, and provide some consistent basis for doing so. Otherwise you’re left consistently rejecting price discrimination like California does, which is clearly an inefficient overreach, or wasting time and money on what most would regard as frivolous cases. On the other hand, those who object have the advantage of pointing to race based discrimination, which based on our ugly history of racism in this country we have a strong reaction against.

I suspect our solution will continue to be ad hoc and messy, which very well may be the best approach. My hope is that we can prevent drifting towards California.