Fairness. Individual rights. Equality under the law. These are all things we, as Americans, and more deeply, as human beings, cherish. We have accepted these ideas as moral, virtuous, and something towards which we ought to strive. It was allegedly in the name of these values that President Obama, with a swift stroke of his pen, signed into law the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act.
The Act, a law against discrimination on the job, attempts to establish equal pay amongst the supposed unequal within the workplace—for men and women; for gay and straight; for ethnicities and so forth. Obama noted that the Act would “send a clear message that making our economy work means making sure it works for everybody”.
The Effect of Anti-Discrimination Laws on Rational People
Rational people understand that discrimination on the basis of unchosen characteristics such as race or gender, or sexual orientation is both immoral and impractical. Leaving aside limited exceptions—a film director casting for a lead actor in a Nelson Mandela biography, for example—it’s simply not valuable in professional or personal life to classify people according to such factors. They are not relevant.
Rational individuals who run businesses are not tempted to improperly consider race, or gender, or sexual orientation when evaluating employees. They understand that when hiring, or firing, the only relevant characteristics are those that pertain to the employee’s ability to do the work. If you are considering hiring a dog walker, for instance, the color of the dog walker’s skin should not matter to you—it makes no impact on the person’s ability to do the job. If the person seems responsible, likes animals, shows up to the appointment on time, communicates clearly, etc., the employer has a relevant reason to hire. If he or she then fails to demonstrate these characteristics, the employer has a relevant reason to fire.
But the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act (and other laws like it) force rational individuals to do exactly the opposite. This Act requires them to consider race, and sex, when making hiring decisions—which means, to ignore salient, moral, and relevant objective qualifications. The government, rather than leaving rational individuals free to be rational, is bullying them into practicing racism to determine the worth of others not on the basis of relevant choices, actions, and abilities, but by unchosen, irrelevant factors such as race and gender.
Who could argue with that? What reasonable person does not regard discrimination as something distasteful and irrational? It seems that the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act is a definite step in the right direction- an expression of Americanism.
And yet, in our personal lives, most of us wouldn’t support a law against discriminating on the basis of sex, race, religion, and so forth. We would think there is something un-American about the government regulating how we make decisions regarding friends, peers, or lovers. Even though some people undoubtedly make irrational choices, we still wouldn’t want the government to make a law against that. Whatever reasons one exercises in selecting a particular wife or husband, for example—whether one seeks someone who shares the same virtues or goals or interests, or whether one has deep-seated prejudices—we would not want these judgments rendered moot by government legislation.
With the passing of the Fair Pay Act, however, precisely this sort of law now exists within the workplace. Businesses no longer have the freedom to exercise their own judgment.
But what’s the difference? Like our personal lives, isn’t a private business just that—private? The local bar, the bowling alley, and the flower shop trade their daffodils, lagers, and bowling shoes, balls and alleys to individuals for money, at the price those individuals are voluntarily willing to pay. Such businesses are privately held, and privately employed. The amount or regularity of public customers does not make the business public. It serves the public, but it is not publicly-owned.
Just as private individuals choose whom they befriend, whom they steer clear of, whom they love, and for what reasons, shouldn’t private employers be free to choose whom they fire, whom they hire, at what pay level, and for whatever reasons? Both realms are private. Within both, individuals choose with whom they interact. What possible justification is there to support a law against discrimination in a private work environment, and not in a private personal environment? Just as we would object to a law that dictated with whom we spend our time in our private lives, we should also object to a law that dictated whom we hire, and for what reasons, in our private business.
The most important idea here is not whether sexism or racism or anything of the sort is irrational and immoral. They are, undoubtedly. The real issue, of the most importance, is whether or not the government should be telling people what they can and cannot do in their private lives. While supporters of this Act may think that laws dictating whom and for what reasons we hire or befriend in the private realm serve to “make sure it works for everybody,” they are wholly mistaken. It does no such thing. Americans don’t think that way. Individuals don’t think that way. And as individuals, in our personal lives, and in our work lives, we make our decisions, and we reap the consequences of these decisions, good or bad, irrational or rational. Government should have no say here; they should have no part in these decisions. Not even a little bit.
For an alternative to dealing with irrational employers who discriminate unfairly, see this post.