I’m not inclined to give John Roberts much credit for criticizing the “comparable worth” theory, and I doubt that he would expect much. For the “comparable worth” theory is so patently foolish that rejection of it would be a sensible criterion for eligibility to take part in public life.
Let’s begin with the elementary fact that “comparable worth” is radically different from “equal pay.” Some in the media still don’t understand that, as USA Today’s story titled “Roberts scoffed at equal-pay theory” shows. “Equal pay for equal work” means simply that men and women should receive the same pay for doing the same (or substantially the same) work. It is relatively easy to administer, and does not invite economic dislocation.
“Comparable worth,” by contrast, calls for judges or an army of bureaucrats to (in Roberts’s accurate description) “decide how much a particular job is worth, and restructure wage systems to reflect their determination.” If the marketplace pays truck drivers more than laundry workers, but a judge decides both jobs are “worth” the same, then the judge will mandate that they be paid the same (as a district judge in fact did in 1983). In short, “comparable worth” (again, as Roberts puts it) “mandates nothing less than central planning of the economy.”
There’s a good reason “comparable worth” has disappeared from the public debate: It’s a loony idea. It’s understandable that labor economists would promote the idea, for it would vastly expand their power. But the additional support it received from liberals is a testament to the validity of Mark Helprin’s recent explanation of liberals: “if you have no understanding of economics, strategy, history and politics, then naturally you would be a liberal.”
In 1984 Roberts strongly criticized a letter from then-representative (and now senator) Olympia Snowe and two others that was supportive of comparable worth: “I honestly find it troubling that three Republican representatives are so quick to embrace such a radical redistributive concept. Their slogan may as well be ‘From each according to his ability, to each according to her gender.’ ” USA Today quotes Snowe as responding yesterday: “Hopefully, 21 years later, Judge Roberts possesses an openness with respect to issues of gender-based wage discrimination.” Let’s hope that, 21 years later, Snowe recognizes that Roberts was right on comparable worth.