Should High Heels Be Taxed?

Among my idiosyncracies are two footwear anti-fetishes: I hate flip flops and high heels. I have never mastered the dark art of walking in flip flops, and I have always been troubled when women teeter at the edge of falling because of shoes designed for fashion (allegedly) rather than function.

Nonetheless, I enjoyed Thursday’s Wall Street Journal piece about the engineering, some would say architecture, of contemporary high heels. I was also pleased that columnist Christina Binkley emphasized some of the negatives early in her piece:

High heels can exact a heavy toll on the body, pushing weight forward onto the ball of the foot and toes and stressing the back and legs. Most doctors recommend a maximum height of 2 inches.

But with heels, many women trade comfort for style. Women spent $38.5 billion on shoes in the U.S. last year, according to NPD Group, and more than half of those sales were for heels over 3 inches high. High heels are seen as sexy and powerful. Stars on the red carpet clamor for the highest heels possible–leading designers who want their shoes photographed into an arms race for height.

That “arms race” comment got me to thinking. Perhaps there’s an externality here? Are women trying to be taller than other women? If Betty has 2 inch heels, does that mean Veronica wants 2 and a half inch heels? And that Betty will then want 3 inch heels? If so, high heels are an example of the kind of pointless competition that Robert Frank highlights in his recent book, “The Darwin Economy“. As noted in the book description

[Such] competition often leads to “arms races,” encouraging behaviors that not only cause enormous harm to the group but also provide no lasting advantages for individuals, since any gains tend to be relative and mutually offsetting. The good news is that we have the ability to tame the Darwin economy. The best solution is not to prohibit harmful behaviors but to tax them. By doing so, we could make the economic pie larger, eliminate government debt, and provide better public services, all without requiring painful sacrifices from anyone.

Hence today’s question: Are high heels an example of such misguided competition? If so, should we tax them? (Bonus question: Should we tax noisy flip flops?)

P.S. The book description is not correct about the absence of “painful sacrifice.” Someone out there will still purchase such goods (otherwise there would be no revenue to “eliminate government debt”), and there’s a good chance they will view their tax payments as a sacrifice.

10 thoughts on “Should High Heels Be Taxed?”

  1. It seems to me that high heels are already under a form of ‘tax’. They, like ladies swimming suits, typically have a pricing structure that is not related to the quantity of material or the effort to create them – but to how they look when worn. I forget the actual term but the cost is usually compared to how sexy the garment makes the user look and or feel. Therefore, by your logic I think flip-flop wearers should be given a subsidy.

  2. Thanks Paul – that made me smile. Unfortunately, there’s still that flip-flop noise to deal with. Perhaps we should subsidize nice, quiet ballet slippers are a substitute for both high heels and flip flops?

  3. Some might say that’s adding insult to injury. 🙂

    If it’s true that men find women more alluring in high heels, wouldn’t there be an argument for a subsidy on account of the positive externality? And the subsidy should be financed by a tax on men, which was proposed in Sweden, although never implemented to my knowledge. That tax was also rationalized on externality grounds–because men do antisocial stuff like crime and encouraging women to wear high heels.

  4. If height was the only issue, platform shoes would provide the same benefit at lower toll to the body. Perhaps some experimentation is in order to consider other hypotheses, such as shape of the leg due to hyperextension of the back leg muscle or demonstration of superior Darwinian fitness by maintaining balance and posture under extreme conditions (one might consider the subset of great interest to primatologists known as “stiletto heels”). We need to understand the behavior better before slapping on a tax that might promote stranger and less appropriate behaviors…or even whether this might be an important fitness signal (given that it is only adopted by a subset of the population) that it would be wrong to tax at all.

  5. I think women do wear heels to be taller than other women, but they also wear them to compete in height with men, at least in career settings. Height implies power. In my last job, I remember going to meetings with a certain three tall male colleagues– I felt less out of place when my shoes gave me a couple extra inches.

    I agree that high heels cause negative externalities, though. I think the most appropriate solution would be to subsidize motorcycles for women. Driving a motorcycle also creates an image and feeling of power, and it is very difficult to ride a motorcycle wearing high heels.

  6. I wonder if high heels also function similarly to neckties– they are signal that the wearer is of a class that does not perform physical labor, by very virtue of their being uncomfortable.

    In Ghana, high heels signal that the wearer can take cars everywhere. Access to a car or ability to afford taxis is a very distinct attribute of the upper class. Women who can do this often wear shoes that would make walking on the uneven or unpaved roads in Ghana an impossibility.

    1. That was supposed to be the rationale for Chinese foot binding. Upper-class women were carried everywhere and never had to walk. Then women of the lower classes, who couldn’t avoid walking and standing, began to imitate them.

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