Separating the Haze of Identity Politics

I’m not a big fan of identity politics. To me, it is often a fight endemic with areas that make assumptions about social ordering that I find cloud areas where reasonable people ought to agree. For example, the relative performance of X group in an outcome as expressed in data is, in my view, a problem that is unlikely to be solved by governments but that’s debatable. It is rare to see both the argument about outcomes and the argument about government’s role discussed as separate matters. My overall point is that we should differentiate what is a social phenomenon from what a government can do about it. I am fine with either debate, when it is framed in a way that does not include unsaid and presumed principles.

A great example is the gender pay gap. Here I will grant that the gap results from the sexism of employers even though I think this is likely a dubious claim. Even if it were though, I would ask, what is the solution and/or what is government’s role in that solution?

One, there is already a law against pay discrimination on the basis of sex. Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 (and later the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act of 2009) forbids discrimination on the basis of sex in hiring, promotion, pay and other conditions of employment. And yet it has had no measurable effect in changing the outcomes for women. Why? Well there are lots of reasons but the increase in the supply of women to the workforce is likely a more powerful dictator of prices than a government edict. Also, the choices of most women are not designed for an ideal aggregate outcome but rather individual outcomes along lines of preferences that are subjective.

“But!” claim leftist activists, “That law depends on a woman to file a lawsuit with a standard of evidence for gender discrimination.” Implied in this objection is that there are some folks who don’t want to have to prove if the employer is a sexist with evidence and a trial. They just want to be able to have an outcome that looks right in the data, which is why the Paycheck Fairness Act requires government to collect information on works pay by race and sex. Then an agency can actively police the outcomes to get the results we want. This I find to be a very patriarchal argument but we are getting off track.

Point two, a pay equality law would not do what it intends to do. For every sexist who is reined in, you will have a well-meaning employer forced to pay a poor performer more, or a hard worker less, than they otherwise would. Regardless of the sex of these various people in the hypothetical, we ought to look at both the law and the costs of implementation. This would remove the meritocracy from wage employment. It would send a signal to all wage employees that what they do does not matter for how much they are paid. Laws ought to be judged by the potential result they produce not the intentions of the lawmaker.

Lastly, no one argues that the law will change the inner evil at play. If a person is forced to hide their sexism because of a law, he or she is no less a sexist. Hypothetically some women will get paid more because of the law, but they then have no way to differentiate the bigot employer from the egalitarian. Either they are paid a market wage as subjectively understood from the negotiations of wages or they do not. Some will object that this places the burden on women to call out sexism when they see it. Some will argue that the federal government needs to come save women from this burden. I think these arguments assume both a premise of weakness in women to stand up for themselves and the power of government to fix all evils in the world.

On every front this law fails to solve the problem and yet leftist-activists will continue to argue that “we need to do something.” Often seen in anti-gun activists, the social justice folks tend to the same habit, to this argument action matters more then what costs those actions create. The underlying premise to this argument is that government can solve all problems. There is a world of difference between claiming government can, in some cases, be a mechanism for justice and claiming that government is capable of providing justice in all circumstances. 

This does not suggest that the aggregate outcome in question is not a real problem. That it is not an injustice or that it demands interested action from third parties. It only means that maybe a law might not be the solution.  Underneath this discussion about the role of government is the debate about social norms. Where do they come from? How do they affect individual behavior? For example, I do not think equal pay advocates would condemn a woman for choosing a poorer paying career path because she enjoys the job more than a potentially higher paying one. But approximately 20% of the pay gap, according to some studies, is explained by that sort of decision making.

The difference in worldview highlighted here is the difference between believing that individual behaviors spontaneously create social norms and believing government can guide or create those norms. Ironically, this is one of the areas in which radical leftists and big government conservatives tend to unite in disagreement. Rick Santorum wants to prohibit gay marriage in order to centrally plan morality. So did Hillary, but she’s “evolved” past that. Nice to have you on board, Hill. But today she wants to centrally plan freedom of association and religious expression norms. As long as it bans what they find to be yucky and as long as you can’t use that freedom in a way they disagree with, Hill and Rick are cool with your liberty.

To be generous to these two, it is an easy trap to fall into. It’s a gut reaction. I don’t like X; therefore, lets have the guys with all the guns ban it. One can be at any place in the political spectrum and forget to see the bottom up knowledge created by the spontaneous ordering of norms that in individual action create culture. This view of the world that splits the voluntary mass civil society from the coercive elite society is seen all over. Everything from drug laws (glad to see Glen Beck seeing the light) and gun laws (progressives) illustrates this point. Despite massive spending to end drug use or to ban guns people continue to use drugs and find guns to own. And before you engage in, “well government has to do something,” note that the US banned sanctioned murder decades before dueling disappeared. Culture, spontaneous ordering for norms and values are upstream of politics and legislation. They are the Laws of social order, you #mtleg folks are the legislators; the difference is subtle but crucial.

My advice for you, dear reader, is to check your premise. That’s the subject of my next Identity Politics post.

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