A Century of Pointless Debate

Shane Woolley  |  4 min read


In light of the recent Republican filibuster of the Paycheck Fairness Act, the generations-old question of government interference in private commerce has again taken center stage: in other words, reared its ugly head. The pivotal issue of the Act is now inundated by abstract and semantic debates about the true powers of the federal government as granted by the Constitution, and further off-topic debates about the sacred, supreme infallibility—or just regular infallibility—of that document. With all this in mind, I would like to preface my discussion of the Paycheck Fairness Act with a fairly quick detour into the chaotic battlefield of the debate over government influence in the marketplace. In so doing, I encourage everyone, Republicans and Democrats alike, to think pragmatically.

First off, a point to the self-proclaimed proponents of the free market: stop trying to pitch an anarchy market. Completely unregulated commerce does not work, much in the way Communism does not work—they’re both ideals that at first seem appealing but then fail to work as intended. A private sector without the stabilizing hand of government would be about as free and democratic as a game of Monopoly. The closest thing America has ever had to a total Laissez-faire economy was the economy of the aptly named Gilded Age. Or, as it is known to modern historians, that time when little-to-no economic regulation existed and a few huge corporations dominated the market, systematically eliminating competitive variety and with it much of workers’ economic power with a series of cyclical economic downturns. Deregulation is even often cited as a cause for 2008’s financial collapse. You may try to sell the image of a free market as a bustling village square of eclectic merchants enthusiastically selling their various wares, but, in that pseudo-reality, all those merchants work for the same top-hatted man and all sell the same, rebranded version of an overpriced insurance plan.

This argument, however, can easily derail onto the other side of the tracks. Those who argue for ubiquitous federal involvement in all areas of the economy are just as shortsighted as those who argue for its complete deregulation. Once it becomes the government’s responsibility to micromanage transactions across an entire nation’s international economy, things start to slow down—as a day at the DMV will show you, government organization is not terribly efficient. Furthermore, superfluous government interference in the private sector can discourage the settlement of businesses in heavily regulated areas and squander opportunities for broader local employment. The unadventurous economic condition of my hometown of East Greenwich, Rhode Island can attest to that. Ideally, the private sector would take over for most of the services currently controlled by the federal government—the space program (SpaceX), education (charter schools), and resource management (hopefully not BP). UPS and FedEx have already almost done so for the US Postal Service.  Thereafter, the federal government would serve only by doing what it was designed to do—by providing checks and balances, by being the hand that guides the market with regulation. And the utmost responsibility of this system would be to empower the disadvantaged of the market.

Of course, this is an ideal situation, but, even now, the main focus of the government should be to protect its people, to protect them from financial instability. That is at the core of the Paycheck Fairness Act—to empower those who are disadvantaged by their working conditions. In this case, those people are women, a bit more than half of our population. The half of the population that makes 77% of the money the other half makes, that is. With the passage of the Paycheck Fairness Act, “Women would be able to discuss their salary with other employees at the workplace without worrying about violating a company policy,” (Contorno). This just makes sense. Talk about the ill-effects of micromanaging: right now, employers can institute policies punishing workers’ discussion of their wages, fearing that these discussions would undermine their own power to discriminate with wages. This is a clear indicator of the survival of a paternalistic system of business management that should have died with the nineteenth century. That’s not to say that these employers are discriminating with respect to wages based on the perversions of twisted and perpetuated sexism—instead, the problem is more systemic. When the entire economy pays women at a lower rate than it does men, there is nothing to stop individual employers from continuing on with this policy, as it costs them less and is not addressed with legal enforcement.

That’s what the Paycheck Fairness Act is trying to do. It’s trying to give enforceable power to the scores of unfairly paid women who, according to recent statistics, actually seem to work harder for their success, on average, than men. Three out of five college students are now female, and more women get Ph.D.’s than men (Sherk). The Act that Republicans blocked would have given these women both liberation from policies barring wage discussion and the legal power to sue employers on the basis of gender discrimination. This new legal power would not be a trite arbitrator—not only would the expense of the trial be enough to deter a scammer, but the employee would also have to prove the discrimination was based on gender, not merit or other job-related reasoning. It is the responsibility of the federal government to provide the stability for women whom it is required to represent and protect, and the filibuster of this act once again corroborates the faulty party system of polar arguments revolving around an outdated discussion of government influence in the marketplace. Those discussions need to be left in the past to make room for these areas of progress in the future.

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