That Which is Not
I suppose it was inevitable that someone would come up with this idea. What wasn't inevitable was that they would express themselves so persuasively.
The idea is that taxes should be raised slightly on men and lowered on women. And no, I do not support it! But I will admit that I find the argument for this one more persuasive than I do for most social engineering schemes, and I think it's worth spelling out why.
[The policy] would be fair because it would compensate women for bearing the brunt of maternity and for the fact that the possibility of having children can negatively affect their career prospects.
Truth be told, I think most men feel a little guilty that women may be "underpaid" for bearing children and being mothers. Clearly, raising children is essential to the survival of the species (understatment of the decade) - and it's a job we males are not only biologically inequipped to do, but also one that we're biologically unwilling to do. Children are a nuissance, and they're expensive, and they take up lots of time and effort. So unlike every other affirmative action scheme I've heard of, this one hits me in a spot where I actually do feel a bit guilty.
If taken to its logical conclusion, this argument also requires that we end any direct attempts (i.e. quotas, hiring laws and special recruitment programs) to address perceived "hiring imbalances." Since women will have been given a compensatory economic advantage (indeed, since the deck will have been stacked against men in the hiring process a bit by making them more expensive to hire) companies should feel free to choose not to hire a particular woman if she strikes them as the type to pop out kids eventually, costing them all that implies in the loss of a trained employee and in medical bills. Since I feel strongly that employers should be allowed to make their own hiring decisions with only success or failure on the open market as feedback, this addresses one of my biggest complaints about traditional affirmative action programs.
The supply of labour of women is more responsive to their after-tax wage, so a reduction in taxes increases the labour participation of women substantially. Men’s labour supply is more rigid, so an increase in taxes does not reduce their labour supply by much, if at all ... This is simply an application of the general principle of public finance that goods with a more elastic supply should be taxed less.
This one is probably the most appealing argument to me: these particular social planners have actually cracked an economics book. One does get so tired of hearing harebrained schemes from people who are thinking with their ideals at the expensive of public wealth. More importantly, it takes as its standard something that is merely correlated with sex, rather than addressing perceived imbalances directly. In theory, if the labor supply of men ever became more elastic than that of women (and if this policy is successful it might even have that effect), the policy could work to men's benefit instead - assuming the planners had implemented it in good faith. Probably most critical in not triggering my usual allergies for these things is the idea that this affirmative action policy actually has a measurable endpoint. I remember a professor of mine once talking about the post-war consensus and, lamenting the fact that we had never had such a thing in America, wanted to know why the country can mobilize to fight the Japanese but not "poverty." And of course the answer is that "poverty" has no measurable end: as a comparative term by nature, it all depends on what you mean by it. I think a lot of our distrust for affirmative action is similar: these policies have no measurable goals. When someone demands "equality," it's never clear how this is to be measured or when we will stop "affirmatively" discriminating. This is the first affirmative action policy I've heard of that has something like a formula attached to it that tells you when it's over and we're done. It is, for once, achievable.
Often those who care about women’s work emphasise the policy of supporting it with publicly funded childcare facilities. A higher take-home salary for women created by our proposal would allow them to buy more childcare at market prices and, since childcare facilities employ mostly women, they would also benefit on their costs.
And again, this is a more free-market approach to seeing that childcare is provided. A subsidy is a subsidy is a subsidy, of course, but at least this one isn't forced payment creating artificial demand for a service. Women would retain a large degree of choice in where to place their children, and the childcare industry as a whole would continue to function efficiently.
We already have a host of policies that are not gender neutral. We could eliminate many of them by adopting a simple differentiation of tax schedules for men and women.
And the clincher: that the authors of the proposal seem to be sincere in their desire to provide a middle way on affirmative action. They are fully aware that adopting their scheme would mean the end of traditional quota-based affirmative action and openly state that as their intention.
Now, as I said at the outset, I do not support this policy, just as I do not support any such government meddling. Of the many convictions that make me a libertarian, one of the most strongly held is that social engineering is as immoral as it is futile. It is not for the government to look at society and remake it into some idealized image; that's something for individuals to do on their own. And despite the trappings of economic competence, this is nothing other than yet another in a long line of miserable attempts by often well-meaning but ALWAYS misguided individuals to refashion human nature by force into what they wish it could be, regardless of the input and feelings of the actual humans they are manipulating.
The interest of this article is not that it is ultimately convincing, which it is not, but just that it fails, at first glance, to set off most of my usual allergies to such policies. It is of interest because it is an adaptation in the socialist sale pitch.
The cry for more "open-mindedness" that one so frequently hears is a way of stacking the deck in favor of the crier's policies, nothing more. In truth, there is such little variation in the range of political ideas that anyone who has been at this game for long will have ceased to hear much that's new. In order not to spend our time inefficiently endlessly reconsidering but minor variations on policies we've long ago discarded as immoral or impractical (in the case of we capitalists, usually both at once), it helps to develop an instinct that tells you when you're hearing the same tripe over again. Usually you can tell in a few stock phrases, and you know to tune out (not unlike recognizing a song you dislike by the first few bars). And indeed, I have long ago stopped listening to arguments for affirmative action - because the very idea of it is so horrible that I find it difficult to take anyone seriously who supports it.
This is, make no mistake about it, an affirmative action policy like any other. It only seems different because it doesn't approach the "problem" by enforcing the "solution." It places soft constraints on the economy that are intended to have the "solution" as a side-effect. And in some ways, I suppose, this represents an evolution in socialist thought.
I am reminded of Paul Graham's excellent essay on the Roots of Lisp - where he notes that there have been only two stable models in programming language design - the Lisp model and the C model - and that each new generation of programming languages looks more like Lisp and less like C. More specifically, he says that each new generation of C-like languages incorporates more and more of the Lisp model into their design. I think the same is true of politics. There are really only two stable models of political philosophy as well: the libertarian model and the socialist model, and with each new generation of neo-socialist political models, the left wing incorporates more and more design features of classical liberalism into its thought. They become more capitalist with each new iteration - and so in the long term I am quite optimistic for the future of our species. We will eventually "figure it out" - I mean, that socialism doesn't work.
So this is what you might call "third way affirmative action." It recognizes that the original battle is lost, and so it cuts its losses by selling itself in a way that it hopes will allow it to slip under the free-marketers' radar.
I say this with no sarcasm whatsoever: nice try. It really is a lot more palatable than affirmative action policies that I've known. But of course, the arguments all ring hollow. It isn't clear, for one thing, that it's actually socially desireable to achieve full employment for women. If women are biologically better able to raise children ... then shouldn't they generally be the ones entrusted with that task? More to the point, any arguments that this policy is somehow "fair" or that it's "leveling the playing field" are no more valid now than they were for the old approach. Any case one could cite of a woman who wanted to work but didn't get as far as she might have because her employers worried that she would eventually get pregnant and cost the company productivity would, I suppose, indeed be a case of unfairness. But how is it any less unfair if a woman who is biologically incapable of having children - or even just doesn't want to have children - and will never cost the company lost productivity is now "subsidized" for a disadvantage that she does, in fact, not have? Why indeed is demographic group membership ever a qualification for anything? If the injustice is that individuals are judged not on their own merits but on the merits of their social group, then this policy, just like every other affirmative action policy ever proposed, simply redistributes the injustice with no hope of ever eliminating it. Finally, it's not even clear that it would be practical. If men make up most of the workforce, then whatever their going rate for the job is will effectively be the baseline. Just as prices rise to compensate for increases in the minimum wage, destroying the effectiveness of each increase in short order, so will, one imagines, men price themselves back into competition with women, destroying the efficacy of each adjustment to this policy in a similar timeframe. Moreover, this policy would only succeed to the extent that the government is able to guess how much of a tax bribe an employer needs to overcome its trepidation that its female newhire will suddenly get pregnant and leave, forcing them to do without her services while they find and then train a replacement. If all of the previous history of regulation is any guide, then governments are known to be ill-suited to making such determinations. Governments, after all, are not the entities that are directly rewarded or punished for making hiring decisions in the marketplace; they aren't what "sets the premium" on sex. Furthermore, to the extent that the premium they (probably incompetently) set is low, one can really question whether a government intervention is warranted or effective. To the extent that the premium is high, this "soft" policy translates into a policy as hard and visibly discriminatory as any quota system.
So while this policy might fool some people for a little while, it won't, I think, ultimately end up being other than what it is: affirmative action by another name. It's socialism that's more like capitalism, but that doesn't mean it's not socialism. Put more directly, dressing up like a capitalist doesn't make you one. And why buy an imitation when you can have the real deal? Capitalism DOES work, and it DOES free individuals to rise and fall on their own merits. You can try to redress the evils of discrimination by fiddling with the weights on the group level, but so long as you're still thinking about people as groups first and individuals second, you're not overcoming anything, period.
I think if libertarians want to draw a lesson from this it's that we need to be more explicit about why we don't like the IRS. It isn't just because income taxes are an unjustifiable drain on the economy (which, of course, they are), it's that taxes, more than anything else, give the planners the tools they need to tell us how to live our lives. It is perverse that "solutions" like the one above are starting to breed themselves in response to our wholly successful attack on overtly planned economies. "Soft" tax incentives are planning too - more accurate planning, even - and we need to keep hammering that point home. The first step in an eventual libertarian victory needs to be a swapping out of the tax system in favor of something simpler, more visible to payers, and LESS visible to the government (in the sense that it gives them less power to single out individuals and groups for special favors). One interesting proposal I've heard is the Fair Tax. I always say I want to withold support until I've had a chance to read the book and think it through. Well, I'm on vacation for three weeks - maybe I'll do that now.
In any case, if this is the response to the collapse of overt planning, then our response needs to adapt as well. This is the face of the future. If we want to beat it, we need to shift strategy. Let's replace the income tax with something else sooner, rather than later, and head the social planners off at the pass.