One Stupid Debate Question

Here is a question asked of Mitt Romney during the presidential town hall debate last week:

Q: In what new ways do you intend to rectify the inequalities in the workplace, specifically regarding females making only 72 percent of what their male counterparts earn?

I have an idea. Let’s pass a federal law mandating equal distribution of income between men and women. It would be easy enough to sort out. No more complicated than any other of the federal government’s redistributive schemes. At the end of each year a tally could be set based on income tax returns; additional taxes then levied on the men and subsequently disbursed to the women up to the amount of the disparity.

Or, maybe we can get serious for a minute.

The question implies one of two things: either that equality of outcome ought to be the goal (in which case we should follow my recommendation above), or otherwise that something nearing equality would be the natural outcome but for the existence some pernicious force in our society successfully conspiring to keep women down. And either way the government ought to do something about it.

But, is government intervention really the answer? To get the right answer, you need to ask the right question. To find the right question, I turn to Stanford economist Thomas Sowell.

So, Mr. Sowell, what of this inequality in the workplace?

From Sowell, Thomas (2011-03-22). Economic Facts and Fallacies: Second Edition (p. 59). Perseus Books Group. Kindle Edition:

“In most societies, for most of history, women have earned lower incomes than men. That fact is not in dispute. What is open to question—and what has generated many fallacies—have been various attempts to explain this fact.

Plausible possibilities are many: Employers might discriminate against women, parents might raise girls and boys differently, women and men might have different skills or make different choices in education or careers. These and other possibilities are often collapsed into one prevailing conclusion: When and where there are significant differences between women and men in their employment, pay, or promotion, discrimination can be inferred and, where there has been a lessening of such disparities over time, it has been due to a lessening of discrimination under the pressures of government, the feminist movement or a general increase in enlightenment. Such reasoning has been common from the media to the political arena to courts of law. But this explanation cannot withstand a scrutiny of history or of economics. It is one of the central fallacies of our time.”

Activists decrying the income gap between men and women are (to quote Charles Lane) using income equality as a proxy for a non-quantifiable social good; in this case equal opportunity. But, equal outcome is not a good proxy for equal opportunity, because it ignores the very real possibility that even with equal opportunity, different preferences between men and women might still lead to unequal outcomes.

In other words, that question about Romney closing the gender pay gap is based on a false premise.

It was one stupid debate question!


Oh, and by the way, Economic Facts and Fallacies is awesome. If it didn’t have such a boring title and such a boring cover, it would’ve been the sort of runaway best-seller that Freaknomics turned out to be, just with a lot more insight than Freakonomics. Get an e-reader, and pick up a copy of Sowell’s book. You won’t regret it.