The mainstream media is suggesting that John Roberts stands against equal pay for women. "Roberts scoffed at equal-pay theory," reads the headline in USA Today. Actually, the story makes clear that what Roberts opposed was "comparable worth," a truly bad idea cooked up by feminists in the late 1970s and 1980s. Here is the explanation offered by Amy Scott on National Public Radio. (The NPR link no longer works.)
"In the early 1980s an idea caught on: What if you paid laundry workers, who tended to be women, as much as truck drivers, who tended to be men? The wage gap between male- and female-dominated jobs would shrink." Sounds ducky, doesn't it?
But consider what it means. "What if you paid . . . ?" But who is "you"? Wages are set in the economic marketplace (or, for the 8 percent of private sector workers in unions, by union contract). A comparable worth law would have required wages to be set by some kind of board of experts, who would decide what each job was "worth." Presumably their decisions would be reviewed by courts; wages would often be set by judges. Little wonder that Roberts called comparable worth a "radical redistributive concept." The market sets wages by supply and demand; comparable worth would have them set by bureaucrats and judges. End result: The private sector would have the efficiency of civil service, in which wages are set by something in the nature of comparable worth. Almost every sensible person knows this is a terrible idea. As a high official in the Clinton administration involved in Al Gore's Reinventing Government program once told me, "No rational person would choose civil service as the way to manage a large organization."
But don't take my word on comparable worth. Look what happened when the Clinton administration took office and, for two years, the executive and legislative branches were controlled by Democrats. So far as I know, no significant effort was made to enact a comparable worth program. The Clinton administration was staffed with a lot of smart women, almost all of them feminists of one stripe or another, well educated and knowledgeable about government. Did Health and Human Services Secretary Donna Shalala, one such person, push for comparable worth? Did first lady Hillary Rodham Clinton? Did Attorney General Janet Reno? If so, I missed it.
As it happens, the workings of the economic marketplace, plus perhaps laws predating Roberts's memo banning discrimination based on sex, have steadily reduced the wage gap between men and women. The Clinton people were smart enough to know that you didn't need to bureaucratize the entire private sector economy to do so.
To assert that Roberts's comments on comparable worth mean he is opposed to equal pay or that he is out of the mainstream because of his opposition to comparable worth is absurd. To say that, you would have to say the same thing about dozens of high officials in the Clinton administration, as well as of leading Democratic members of Congress.