TCS Daily


A Former Feminist Weighs the Wage Gap

By Keith Burgess-Jackson - June 14, 2004 12:00 AM

The United States Census Bureau has just released statistics on occupational salaries. Here is an Associated Press report on the statistics (with a link to the Census). As you read the report, ask yourself whether the wage disparities discovered between men and women are attributable to sex-based discrimination or individual choices. There could be some admixture of the two, of course, in which case we might want to find out how much is attributable to each factor. What we should not do is what many feminists do, viz., assume that the disparities are unjust. This must be demonstrated, not assumed.

As readers of my many TCS columns know, I used to be a feminist. One of the things I believed, because feminists believe such things, is that women are discriminated against in the job market. I loved saying -- with a tone of contempt in my voice -- that women earn only three-quarters (or whatever the figure was) of what men earn. The implication was that those nasty men are holding women down.

I was -- I hate to admit -- blinded by ideology. The market is a consummately rational institution. The logic of rational self-interest precludes the sort of bias belief in which fuels feminism. If you hire men over more-qualified women, simply because you think more highly of men or want to keep women down, you won't last long in commerce. You'll be put out of business -- the market's distinctive form of punishment -- by those who hire on the basis of ability. A rational firm ignores irrelevant considerations in its decisions, including its hiring decisions.

Human beings have created three great rational machines: the market, science, and the common law. (Note that liberals rail against all three. I'll explain why in a moment.) The market allocates resources to their most highly valued uses, thus promoting overall well-being. Think of Adam Smith's "invisible hand." Science is the systematic disciplining of observation by means of the senses, with the aim of understanding, and ultimately of controlling, the world. It is neither objective nor subjective. It is intersubjective. The common law (as opposed to statutory or constitutional law) is the most sophisticated engine of analogical (case-based) reasoning ever invented.

These institutions -- the market, science, and the common law -- are our paradigms of rationality. If any human institution is rational, they are. What they have in common, you will have noticed, is lack of centralized control. That is precisely why liberals oppose them. They can't control them. Liberals are totalitarians manqué. Their raison d'être is the acquisition and use of power. They value power both intrinsically (for what it is) and extrinsically (for what it can bring about). They insist that this power will be used benevolently, but conservatives, taking Lord Acton's dictum to heart, know better. Liberal enthusiasm must be curbed -- for everyone's sake.

The market rewards and punishes choices made by individuals. I don't make as much money as my brother Glenn, for example, who works in an automobile factory. But that's because I value other things besides money. Or rather, I value money less than he does. I have a job (university professor) that gives me almost perfect autonomy. I rarely have to be somewhere. I almost never have a sensation of doing something I dislike (except, I admit, grading, which comes along only four or five times a year and lasts only a couple of days at a time). I'm my own boss, making decisions about what to teach, how to teach it, what to read, what to write, where to publish, and so forth.

Think of it like this. I found a way to get paid for what I love to do -- for what I would do anyway, for what I cannot help but do. (Don't tell my university!) Work is not a necessary evil to me; it is a positive good. Many people divide their lives into two parts: the work part and everything else. The time clock symbolizes the divide. This is sad. My life is not divided. If any of my life is work, then all of it is work. But really, none of it is work. Not in the usual sense of the term, which implies onerousness and lack of fulfillment.

Different people want different things out of life. Some people want high-risk, high-reward jobs. Others want safe, secure jobs. Some people don't mind working long or inflexible hours. Others want short or flexible hours (to be with children, for example). Some people are ambitious in the sense that they want to "move up" in a firm (the so-called corporate ladder). Others don't care about moving up. Some people want intellectual work (work that exercises the brain). Others want physical work. Some people are willing to invest resources in an occupation, as by earning a college degree. Others are not. And so on.

If men and women make different choices in the job market, then there is no reason to expect their earnings to be the same. As for why men and women make different choices, that has to do, ultimately, with biology (as law professor Kingsley R. Browne and others have shown). Men, we know, are more competitive and status-oriented than women, so they will be attracted to competitive, high-risk, high-reward, high-status occupations. Women are more nurturing, so it stands to reason that they will be attracted to teaching, nursing, and other nurturing occupations.

Ah, you say, but why are teaching and nursing -- traditional female jobs -- paid less than traditional male jobs? Feminists say it's a male plot to keep women down. They call traditional female occupations "pink ghettos," with all that that disparaging term implies.

This is absurd. Salaries are the price of labor. Like all prices, they are a function of supply and demand. A nurse's salary depends on how many nurses there are relative to the demand (need) for nurses. If lots of people are competing for scarce positions in a field, the salary for that position will fall. In jobs that not many people want, it takes a high salary to attract them. If you want to earn more money than you do, develop a skill for which there's a demand and that not many others have. Make yourself valuable! Stop complaining about how unjust the world is and get going! Stop playing the victim!

Keith Burgess-Jackson, J.D., Ph.D., is Associate Professor of Philosophy (with tenure) at The University of Texas at Arlington, where he teaches courses in logic, ethics, philosophy of religion, biomedical ethics, and philosophy of law. See here for his university homepage. He is also a dedicated (but never medicated) blogger. See AnalPhilosopher, Animal Ethics, and The Ethics of War.


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