Comparable Worth, Judge John Roberts and Why It is Not Radical to Oppose the Overturning of Our Capitalist System

Despite what some may be led to believe from the rather hysterical news coverage Tuesday, then-29-year-old Associate White House Counsel John Robert, Jr. was right, and feminists and some Members of Congress were (and in some cases remain) wrong on the issue of “comparable worth” (sometimes misleadingly called “pay equity”).

News services, too, are wrong to run headlines that imply that Roberts opposed “gender equity” when he opposed adoption of “comparable worth” proposals designed to allow government to set wage rates throughout our economy.

Comparable worth, simply put, was nothing less than an attempt to use the pretext of equal rights for women as a means of putting judges, bureaucrats, legislators and trial lawyers in charge of private and public sector wage rates.

Equal rights means equal rights, not guaranteed equal outcomes.

Fortunately, comparable worth as a serious public policy idea died a well-deserved death back in the 80s (though some on the left continue to promote the idea, mostly in an echo chamber). Unfortunately, the idea was so utterly annihilated, it seems most conservatives now don’t even recall the proposal, which made it rather difficult for them to explain on short notice today how lousy it is, and why John Roberts was right to compare it to Marxism.

I explained what comparable worth advocates believe, why it is so radical, and how comparable worth (if adopted) actually would hurt women in this National Center “What Conservatives Think” publication back in 2004. “Comparable worth” was considered a dead idea even then, but some on the left kept trotting it out, as if it were a pro-woman, pro-fairness initiative, instead of a radical restructuring of our entire economy.

Here’s what I wrote:

The left-wing has complained about so-called “pay equity” for years. As the U.S. Senate’s Republican Policy Committee has pointed out, however: “The average wage gap between men and women is 26 cents (and falling). But this figure does not account for factors unrelated to sex discrimination that affect income: age, education, occupation, number of years in the workforce, and experience. Controlling for these factors shows women are actually paid 98 cents for every dollar earned by a man. The remaining 2-cent adjusted wage gap could be caused by sex discrimination, but it could also be caused by measuring errors, unaccounted for differences between men and women, or a combination of these factors. The 2-cent adjusted wage gap could also be more than made up for by the non-monetary benefits of female-dominated jobs, including better supervisors, fewer risks, easier commutes, and more flexible hours. Former Congressional Budget Office Director June O’Neill writes, ‘When earnings comparisons are restricted to men and women more similar in their experience and life situations, the measured earnings differentials are typically quite small.'”

If there is a pay equity problem, however, the left’s solutions are far worse than any problem. Proposals such as those introduced in Congress by Rep. Rose DeLauro and Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton in the House and Senator Tom Daschle in the Senate would create a flurry of lawsuits and much work for trial lawyers and government employees. Conservatives suspect this is no accident.

It is worth noting that wage discrimination on the basis of gender already is illegal. The government has structures in place to assure that a woman doing the same job as a man receives the same compensation. What the left seeks is a government mechanism to assure that persons in female-dominated professions are paid as much as people in male-dominated professions.

The philosophical issue involved is this: Liberals believe it ultimately is the responsibility of federal government to assure “fair” wage rates, while conservatives believe this is neither true nor wise. Wage rates are properly negotiated between employer and employee. Employers who do not provide adequate compensation will find themselves with a shortage of workers. Any other standard is subjective.

Another way to put it: The left believes both government employees and trial lawyers have a superior ability to set fair wage rates than do traditional supply and demand mechanisms. The right disagrees.

Ironically, because the law of supply and demand ultimately can never be repealed, pay equity laws (also called “comparable worth” proposals) are likely to increase unemployment rates for women by raising wage rates in female-dominated professions beyond what the market will bear.

What’s amazing is not that young John Roberts opposed having the government set wage rates, but that anyone who calls herself or himself a capitalist, let alone a Republican, disagrees.

Note this passage in an August 16 New York Sun article by Josh Gernstein referring to Rep. Nancy Johnson, Republican of Connecticut:

Ms. Johnson’s office offered a more pithy rebuttal to the nominee’s memo. “We don’t think equal pay for equal work is a radical concept,” said a spokesman for the congresswoman, Brian Schubert. “Women and men doing comparable work should be paid fairly and equally.”

Does Mr. Schubert understand that comparable worth proposals mean the government, not the private sector, would set wage rates? I wonder.

Addendum (8/18): This August 18 article by Robert Parry, author of the book “Secrecy & Privilege: Rise of the Bush Dynasty from Watergate to Iraq,” and a former AP and Newsweek writer, is a perfect example of how not to write about Judge John Roberts and comparable worth. Despite Mr. Parry’s apparently impressive credentials as a reporter, Parry apparently had absolutely no idea what “comparable worth” proposals were designed to do when he wrote his screed. As such, Parry makes the mistake of assuming that Roberts’ opposition to handing government the power to set public and private wage rates necessarily means that Roberts, when he worked in the Reagan Administration, thought women deserved to be paid less (for the same work) than men. Parry says Roberts is on the wrong side of history. In fact, Parry is on the wrong side of accuracy.

The National Center for Public Policy Research is a communications and research foundation supportive of a strong national defense and dedicated to providing free market solutions to today’s public policy problems. We believe that the principles of a free market, individual liberty and personal responsibility provide the greatest hope for meeting the challenges facing America in the 21st century.