Comparable Worth versus Civil Liberty: Are Feminists Pro-Choice?

Jane M. Orient, M.D., is In the private practice of medicine in Tucson, Arizona. She is also adjunct assistant professor of Internal medicine at the University of Arizona College of Medicine.

Though enshrined in the 1984 platform of the Party of New Ideas, the comparable worth concept was both proposed and demolished in 1928 by George Bernard Shaw. “To Each What She Deserves” was the title of its chapter in his book The Intelligent Woman’s Guide to Socialism, Capitalism, Sovietism, and Fascism. Shaw’s discussion might be especially helpful to those who confuse the idea with the fundamentally different issue of equal pay for equal work.

“Well think it out,” he says. “The clergyman . . . is able to read the New Testament in Greek; so that he can do something the blacksmith cannot do. On the other hand, the blacksmith can make a horseshoe, which the parson cannot. How many verses of the Greek Testament are worth one horseshoe? You have only to ask the silly question to see that nobody can answer it.”

Shaw also discussed an alternate but similar notion: “Since measuring their merits is no use, why not try to measure their faults? Suppose the blacksmith swears a good deal . . . ! Everybody in the village knows this; but the parson has to keep his faults to himself.” And if the parson were discovered to have the fault of distorted values (say that he preferred fashionable society to religion), would that make him “as bad as the blacksmith, or twice as bad, . . . or only half as bad?”

A system that paid prizefighters so much money had to be absurd, Shaw concluded. “But to suppose that it could be changed by any possible calculation that an ounce of archbishop or three ounces of judge is worth a pound of prizefighter would be sillier still.”

Proponents of comparable worth make exactly that supposition. A scale devised by the Hay Study in San Jose assigned points on the same scale to 231 different jobs, taking into account skill, effort, responsibility, and working conditions. For example, the position of puppeteer was given 124 points, equivalent to offset press operator, engineering technician I, or street sweeper operator. A maintenance worker I was considered to be worth 140 points, a senior recreation leader 158 points, and a stage hand 178 points.

At first glance, such a scale looks perfectly objective. After all, what could be more objective than a number? In reality, the numbers simply codify the subjective values of the consultant. Rather consistently, such job evaluations tend to place a higher value on college education than employers do. Similarly, they seem to award points for social worthiness. The raters then presume to impose their values on everyone, through the legislature and the courts. Not only do they determine conversion factors—how many horseshoes equal a Greek verse—but they pretend that these are as precise as the factors that convert centimeters into inches, at least to three significant digits.

Of course, individuals do place values on horseshoes and Biblical translations. The values differ with the individual, and with his needs (and resources) at the moment. The person who has seen horses only in B-grade Western movies would prize them less than would a farmer in an underdeveloped nation, who depends on them to transport his produce to market. A person studying for the ministry would probably appreciate Greek scholars more than a manufacturer of semiconductors would.

Subjective Values

Economic values are subjective and variable. Comparable worth challenges both the legitimacy of voluntary exchange in the marketplace, and the values represented in the wages and prices thus determined. Paradoxically, this attack on economic pluralism is led by defenders of the right to choose alternative lifestyles, even those considered morally reprehensible in the recent past.

Comparable worth is promoted as a moral or civil rights issue. The moral imperative arises from the perceived injustice in the present system. The “59 cent gap” (the average woman earns 59 cents—now 61 cents—for each dollar earned by the average man) may be grounds for suspecting unfairness, though it does not constitute a prima-facie case. About half the gap is due to undetermined factors, and is attributed to discrimination. Half is accounted for by “human capital” factors: education, experience, and commitment to the labor force. Part of this difference between women and men may result from past discrimination, mandated by laws restricting women’s conditions of work and, more powerfully, by unwritten custom.

Interestingly, past discriminatory practices were motivated by a concern for social justice. Labor unions, the Catholic Church, the social welfare movement, and even American socialist parties all belonged to a coalition supporting the “family wage.” The “one-paycheck-per-fam-ily” idea was meant to protect those most vulnerable to competition, the men at the low end of the wage scale. Fair competition would have meant unemployment for some breadwinners (men), while their jobs were done by women, who were bringing in a supplementary income.[1] In addition, increasing the size of the labor force drives wages down, by the law of supply and demand. Keeping women at home helped men to command a “living wage.”

Although past discrimination resulted from good intentions, yesterday’s social justice has become today’s unfairness. The values that our forefathers imposed on the economy were wrong, according to current thought. However, comparable worth advocates would follow the precedent of rejecting the free market and enforcing, by legislation or litigation, their own vision of what is right. They fear that too much freedom might lead to oppression.

On the one hand, it is argued that the market is too free—at least for employers. A representative of the American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees stated that freedom from bias was the only legitimate freedom of the marketplace.

A Question of Choice

On the other hand, it is claimed that women are not really free, but have been “herded” into the “pink collar ghetto,” that is, segregated disproportionately into low paying jobs, more or less deliberately. But why do women settle for “unacceptably” low wages? Why do they not clamor to enter relatively well-paid, if humble, occupations, such as the skilled trades? When pressed, comparable worth proponents acknowledge that women don’t want to do those jobs. They do not strive for upward mobility, except into positions of high status, as in medicine, administration, or government. They want to stay where they are, albeit with a raise in pay.

Clearly, this is an admission that “women’s work” does have certain advantages. Compensation cannot be measured solely in terms of dollars and cents. Although the low salaries of librarians, secretaries, nurses, and teachers are no secret—and certainly not a recent development—women, and increasing numbers of men, still prefer these fields. The working conditions are pleasant, at least in comparison with bricklaying and plumbing; the hours are convenient; and entry to and exit from the work force are relatively easy.

Thus, the seeming ambivalence about freedom is explained: it is related to the definition. Comparable worth advocates are not concerned about freedom to make choices, but about freedom from the consequences of those choices. Their real grievance is that they do not control the market forces that determine what will be offered for each job. They resent the law of supply and demand, and are unhappy about the values that employers assign to various jobs.

Payment for Caring

Though conceding that people should be compensated for enduring the hot sun and other difficult conditions, comparable worth advocates indict our society for placing a low value on intellectual abilities and attributes such as “caring,” which are required in traditionally feminine roles. How can a civilized nation show such slight appreciation (in monetary terms) for those who nurture and teach the young? What sort of society values a strong back more than compassion and a liberal education? The United States is no more advanced in that regard than the England of George Bernard Shaw.

Of course, increases in pay of professionals such as nurses and teachers have occurred, but in response to shortages rather than because of enlightenment. Likewise, comparable worth would not rely on enlightenment either, but would substitute legal compulsion for amoral market forces. Furthermore, it is in reality just as materialistic as the marketplace, since all admissible rewards are monetary.

It is easy to deplore the taste and judgment of the common man, as reflected in market values. The question is whether we can assume that an ad hoc, elite commission would distribute rewards any more fairly. Arguably, such a commission could be disinterested and able to consider factors beyond brute economics, whereas employers have a vested interest in the cost of production. Nevertheless, no group could claim to be immune to all bias, especially if it owed its very existence to a special interest group whose values differed from the prevailing ones.

Acknowledging that the comparable worth commission must possess some bias, is it not morally preferable to be biased in favor of the “disadvantaged”? This appealing idea has profound implications. To say, a priori, that in the scales of justice the rights of employees outweigh those of employers (and of the customers who ultimately pay the cost of production) is incompatible with the principle of equality before the law, the very foundation of civil rights. At first, the “disadvantaged” may appear to gain. But sooner or later, those who are most skilled in manipulating the political process will define “social justice.” In other words, in the absence of equality before the law, might makes right.

It is crucial to understand the conflict between civil rights and comparable worth. Civil rights demand a society ruled by law and based on contract. Under the law, each individual must have the right to make voluntary agreements with others. The courts uphold contracts, and prevent coercion, which might be understood to include arbitrary barriers to employment, that is, barriers unrelated to ability to perform the job. Comparable worth, on the other hand, necessarily resorts to rule by men rather than by law, and would make status rather than contract the basis of society. Rule by men is inevitable because there can be no objective criteria to determine what each should be paid. No library would even be large enough to contain the statute books that enumerated all the possible combinations of knowledge, experience, and personal attributes, along with the pay due to each individual possessing that combination for performing jobs with particular requirements.

Turn Back the Clock?

However advantageous rule by men may appear to be in certain circumstances, the idea should alarm the student of history. Do we wish to turn the clock back to the time before the Magna Carta established the supremacy of the law over the ruler? Do we desire to emulate the current example of the People’s Republic of China, which has not published a legal code, but relies on a “democratic political process” for all decisions? Useful as it might be to study models remote in time or place, it might be adequate simply to look at the other side of the comparable worth equation.

If some groups of people are to be paid relatively more, who is to be paid relatively less? Since comparable worth advocates tend to compare the pay of teachers and secretaries with that of blue collar workers, one suspects they would like to economize on janitors, truck-drivers, garbage collectors, and plumbers—hardly a group with outstanding privileges. Naturally, a group seeking political influence would be reluctant to name those who would be hurt by its proposals.

In all likelihood, there would be no explicit pay cuts—just no raises for the previously “favored” until justice has been achieved. Especially if government employees, who are in the front ranks of the advocates, are upgraded in salary in large numbers, the mechanism of financing is likely to be inflation, a tried-and-true method of cutting people’s pay without facing the storm of protest. This is the second way in which comparable worth is deceptive, the first being the pretense that the numbers on the scale are objective measures rather than statements of opinion.

Moral Objections

So far, we have considered the moral objections to the comparable worth proposal. It is deceptive, coercive, elitist, and arrogant. More seriously, it would suspend the rule of law. In place of an alleged gender discrimination (which is assumed to be the reason for the wage gap), it would substitute legalized class discrimination (where class is defined by points on a scale of worthiness).

Today, many seem to believe that noble ends justify the means. Disregarding the due process of law, they focus on results. Therefore, let us next discuss the likely outcome of comparable worth, in the light of some desirable goals: 1. higher valuation of femininity, 2. broader opportunities for women, 3. higher pay for women, and 4. greater independence for women.

Although feminists tend to see the relatively low wages in female dominated fields as evidence of low esteem for women, there is another side to the “family wage.” Although women of the elite view a career as a means of self-fulfillment, those of lesser skills might regard a job as further drudgery that they must perform in addition to household duties and child care. The “59 cent gap” provides some women (about 40 percent of married women) the option of staying at home. Indeed, the differentiation of family responsibilities by gender probably accounts for much of the gap. The average pay of women who have never married, and who have continuously participated in the labor market, is virtually the same as that of married men.[2]

Closing the gap might mean that all but the most well-to-do would require two paychecks to make ends meet. In fact, more and more families are finding themselves in that situation. The implication is that a woman’s work in the home is not sufficient to merit a living: clearly, a de valuation of her contribution to society. That women hire substitutes for child care and homemaking, at wages less than they themselves earn, is further evidence that their value in the home is less than in the outside world. Are mothers really less important than secretaries? Only if we think in terms of dollars. Probably, no one could afford to pay women what they are really worth.

Of course, it does not seem fair that some women are blessed with provident husbands, whereas many others are not so fortunate. However, comparable worth could not alleviate that problem, and might worsen it, just as aid to dependent children has been accompanied by an increase in the number of women on the welfare rolls. Comparable worth is tinged with envy. Why should some women have just one job (at home), while others must commute to a stressful, unglamorous second one?

Within the Market

Naturally, comparable worth advocates are more concerned about the welfare of women who are in the labor market than those who are not. At least, the working woman should benefit from the proposal. However, “entitlement” to a certain wage is not very helpful if a worker cannot find employment at that rate. The market price, or market wage, is one at which supply and demand reach an equilibrium. Interference with this mechanism, as by comparable worth, results in an excess of either supply or demand.

Increasing wages by judicial fiat would increase the demand for the affected jobs at the same time that it decreased their supply, causing stiffer competition among those seeking the positions. Those with fewer skills (or fewer “connections”) will find no opportunity. They might demand that the number of slots be increased, or frozen, but this would at best be a short-term solution. Businesses forced to pay workers more than they are worth eventually face several options: bankruptcy, replacement of workers with word processors or machines, or exporting jobs to Taiwan or other more competitive areas.

Looking again at the other side of the equation, lower wages in other fields would cause a shortage of people willing to accept some jobs. Why bother to study calculus, in which the attrition rate is as high as 70 percent, when similar compensation is mandated for those who elect library science instead? Why lift heavy boxes if a desk job pays more? Shortages of workers decrease productivity, affecting the entire economy.

“Social worth,” defined by an elite commission, may sound more fair than “demand,” defined by the marketplace. But in reality it simply replaces a voluntary decision by a forced one. Its fairness is debatable, but the disruption of the economy is obvious.

Resort to the continuing use of force in order to “liberate” women would seem paradoxical if we did not understand the definition of freedom that is inherent in utopian proposals. To schemes aimed at liberating us from the human condition, political liberty is an obstacle, because people might make decisions that thwart the aims of the self-styled liberators. These utopians do not want women to be independent as individuals, free to become engineers and to make contracts. Rather, they wish to replace the perceived subjugation of women to men with the subjugation of everyone to a “political process” dominated by philosopher-kings with the “right” values, who promise to free people from their problems. Many of the proposed solutions are familiar: more state-supported day-care centers, more maternity benefits, and of course more planning and less economic freedom.

Could there be any other solutions? What if the emphasis changed from escaping the burdens of women to coping with them in creative ways? What if we allowed more freedom?

The main problem of women is, in a word, children. Women have a disproportionate share of that burden. As a survey of executive women by the Wall Street Journal showed, their husbands rarely assume primary responsibility for meal planning, caring for sick children, or shopping for them. We can’t do away with children, and transferring their care to someone else also creates problems. Infectious diseases are more common in day care centers, and child abuse has been reported. Most importantly, parents relinquish much of their critical early influence on the child’s upbringing. Is there any way in which women could care for their own children, and yet make full use of their other abilities?

The Information Revolution and Freedom in the Market

The information revolution is one means by which freedom in the marketplace could increase freedom for women. The “telecommuting” sector could potentially involve 15 to 20 percent of the work force by the end of the decade. Writers, travel agents, programmers, financial advisors, and coders of insurance forms even now frequently work from their terminals at home. Of course, men who prefer to work at home and handicapped persons benefit along with women who have small children. Net income is greater, if there are no child care expenses, and time otherwise spent commuting can be used more productively. As a bonus, children who see their mothers at work need not rely on pictures in schoolbooks to learn that women make important contributions to the economy.

Though it would seem to be in women’s best interests to be in the forefront of the telecommuting revolution, feminists are forming alliances with those who oppose economic freedom in general, and home work in particular. Resolutions against computer home work have been passed at union conventions, with rhetorical threats of “electronic sweatshops.” In at least one instance, local authorities have shut down a computer home worker because of alleged violation of a zoning law.

A 1943 Labor Department ruling bans all home work in seven industries. Only recently, Secretary of Labor Donovan attempted to rescind the most notorious restrictions forbidding workers to knit outerwear at home, but he faces court challenges from the International Ladies’ Garment Workers Union.[3] Thus, the most conspicuous proponents of comparable worth, unions and government, are fighting against the real civil rights issue of the 1980s: the right to work without rigid restrictions and meddlesome intrusions.

Not all women would wish to telecommute. But women benefit from having as many options as possible, including a division of labor in which a man is the chief breadwinner. They should encourage their daughters to learn their mathematics, since inadequate quantitative skills exclude women from a wide variety of occupations. They might advocate expansion of vocational education, in view of the glut of college graduates. They should favor policies that promote economic growth, which creates jobs. Above all, they should support a system that is open to the unforeseen opportunities resulting from innovation and technological advance, which has already relieved them of much of their great-grand. mothers’ drudgery. In short, women belong in the front lines of the battle to preserve economic liberty.

George Bernard Shaw, Fabian socialist, after rejecting comparable worth, eventually concluded that everyone should be paid exactly the same amount. He recognized only one difficulty: what about the poor bloke who just wasn’t worth what society was obligated to pay him? Shaw suggested that we simply execute such a fellow, in a kindly manner of course.

Comparable worth advocates don’t propose to execute people, at least not yet. But for a small increase in the paychecks of some, the demise of the rule of law, the death of economic freedom, distorted growth, aborted potential, and stillborn opportunities are too high a price.

1.   William Tucker, “Condemned to Liberation: the Woman as Breadwinner,” The American Spectator, November 1984, p. 22.

2.   Michael Levin, “Comparable Worth: the Feminist Road to Socialism,” Commentary, September 1984, p. 13.

3.   David Rubins, “Telecommuting: Will the Plug Be Pulled?” Reason, October 1984, p. 25.

Further Reading