The dangerous cost of equal pay

Barbara Amiel August 5 1985

The dangerous cost of equal pay

Barbara Amiel August 5 1985

The dangerous cost of equal pay


Barbara Amiel

Of all the concepts that the totalitarian instinct of our times has bequeathed to society—including racial and gender job quotas and laws against free speech—the seemingly harmless slogan “equal pay for work of equal value” is potentially the most destructive to a free society.

This column is not about equal pay for the same job. It is about the attempt to assign arbitrarily equal value to different jobs—a concept so self-evidently wrong that one blushes to have to discuss it. But all major political parties in Canada have endorsed the slogan, and Ontario Attorney General Ian Scott has just promised to introduce such legislation in the fall. So the obvious must be pointed out again.

Of course, all work has equal value in a purely moral and abstract sense. The most complicated brain surgery could not be performed without the steady contribution of electricians who install equipment or the orderlies who prepare the patient. But to view things so abstractly and demand that everyone be paid the same would be ludicrous.

The value of a job is determined by nothing but supply and demand. Value depends on how many people require a service and how many others are willing to provide it. Nobody in his right mind would decide that a performer of pop tunes is a more skilled musician than the concert master of a symphony orchestra, but the demand for one outstrips the other and often so does the pay. My own musical preference may be for a classical violinist, but that is a minority view; most people want to hear Madonna.

The people who are pushing equal pay for work of equal value have decided that they can forget all about supply and demand and evaluate jobs on the basis of a number of categories—specifically, skill, effort, responsibility and working conditions. This is madness. If you set up criteria to evaluate the length of time required to learn a job or the skills involved, then virtually all of people’s traditional earnings would be automatically reversed. The presentation of fine French cuisine would be a more profitable business than the marketing of hamburgers. Clearly, it takes more skill to run a restaurant serving cervelles en matelote, but there do not seem to be multimillion-dollar French gourmet chains. The demand is for McDonald’s. There is some correlation between

skill and working conditions, but it is not the one that equal pay advocates see. Hard working conditions in themselves do not make a job more “valuable.” It is simply that in some jobs with tougher working conditions, there are fewer people willing to do them. That is why night-shift work has a premium on it. But if for some reason difficult working conditions or skills do not influence supply and demand, they will not influence the job’s value. A mountain climber is a highly skilled worker performing in wretched conditions. But demand for such services is very limited, except in the Alps, and so the pay remains minimal.

It is the contention of the social engineers of the women’s movement that women get lower salaries for jobs because of their sex. To believe that, one has to assume that somewhere there is a group of people sitting around consciously deciding how much a job is

The attempt to assign equal value to different jobs is ludicrous. Value depends on how many people require a service

worth. This is not the case. With the exception of the minimum wage, which applies to very few jobs, the rate of everybody’s salary is determined by the marketplace.

That rate, incidentally, is a changing one. Lawyers once made a lot of money. Now there are too many of them, and I know one bright young lawyer unable to earn enough at law who worked for a year as a waitress. On the other hand, a good executive legal secretary is worth her weight in gold—and can get it.

A lot of women want jobs with regular hours that require limited skills for the perfectly respectable reason that such work gives them the maximum mobility to pursue personal options. Those jobs are oversupplied; wages remain low. If the government were to legislate that only one female in a thousand could become a secretary wages would rise.

What many advocates of the equalpay thesis do not seem to realize is that they are proposing a fundamental change in the way our society operates. Market forces of supply and demand are neutral. When you replace them, you are not replacing an unjust system with a

just one but, instead, introducing a conscious system to replace a spontaneous one. Ultimately, you are replacing the amorality of the free market with the immorality of the regulated society. What results is theft: you rob the janitors to pay the cleaning women.

Why is our society letting this happen? Some people are doing it out of goodwill to remedy what looks to them like unfairness. In their lust for justice they are blinded to the consequences. Some people are acting out of self-interest: “experts” in job evaluation are springing up all over the place. Some people are doing it because they know that it is a major step toward the totally planned society. More than any other social policy, implementing equal-value mechanisms would allow the government to determine the value of each job in society on an abstract scale.

Every person would have to go and holler at a committee of wage adjustment. Conflicts would start between men and women, but soon opposing racial, ethnic and professional interests would surface; we would quickly see Sikh taxi drivers fighting to prove that their jobs were as valuable as Hindi rail workers.

The tragedy is that we have actually achieved the fair society—thanks largely to the women’s movement. The minute it was against the law to refuse to consider a woman for a job for which she was qualified, then both equality of opportunity and fairness were ours.

Should the principle of equal pay for work of equal value be enacted, in the end the government will have to go all the way and decide who and how many people can go into what job. In the arbitrary system where committees determine the value and pay of a job there will be arbitrary winners and losers. Of course people will still try to stream themselves into the winning jobs. But if everyone wants to be a status of women representative because it has high pay and no one wants to be a switchboard operator because it pays poorly, there will be no market forces to correct the situation—only bureaucrats. There may be a demand and need for switchboard operators, but the government will have to coerce people to work at Bell Canada.

To stop this steamroller policy will require fighting shortsighted and narrow-minded feminists as well as cowardly and opportunistic politicians. But if our society wishes to retain equality of opportunity and liberty, the fight must be won.