On Sept. 15, President Barack Obama reiterated his support for equal pay for equal work laws in a speech at the AFL-CIO Convention in Pittsburgh. He reminded convention attendees that “the very first bill I signed into law was the Lilly Ledbetter Act to uphold the basic principle of equal pay for equal work.” This bill strengthened the ability of workers to sue an employer with the intention of reducing race — or gender — based discrimination in the workplace. But this law — and other equal pay laws like it — is bound to fail because the progenitor of all unequal pay for equal work is the government itself. The free market assures that workers are paid what they deserve. All the government can possibly do is corrupt this system.

Wages are determined by the output of the worker. If I produce $80 worth of goods in an eight-hour shift, my wage will tend toward $10 an hour in the free market. This is true because if I were paid less than $9 an hour, it would be beneficial for a different employer to hire me at $9.50 an hour, thereby earning the extra $.50 per hour on my labor. This process of constant outbidding continues until the $10 per hour level is reached. This level is called the Marginal Value Product.

I will admit that widespread discrimination is possible in the free market. But those who discriminate pay very dearly for their discrimination: Employers who discriminate get lower profits and consumers get fewer choices. To come up with an example that removes racial and gender implications, let’s suppose that every American employer hated Canadian workers and decided to pay them less than their actual contribution to a finished product. Each Canadian, although producing at a level of $10 per hour, was only paid $5 per hour.

In this situation, a couple of things can be said. One, it opens a gap in the market where non-discriminating employers can hire exclusively Canadians and make massive profits. Two, those who suffer most from underpaying Canadians, and consequently also overpaying Americans for equal work, are employers. The employers themselves are earning lower profits and therefore paying for their anti-Canadian discrimination.

The point is that the solution to discrimination is not the government, but rather the market. The very fact that employers are not actively excluding Canadians from jobs suggests one of the following cases: Either “discriminated” workers are being paid the right amount or the government is oppressing them. In other words, there must be either no problem and no government action is needed, or the government is causing the problem and all that is necessary is for them to get out of the way.

If any liberals actually believe that there is widespread discrimination against a group of potential workers, then liberals should start businesses and pay that group more than their existing wage. Because most businesses are interested in making a large profit, this type of mass hiring should already be taking place under a free market. Since it is not taking place, then either the government is oppressing people or workers deserve the wage they get.

Equal pay for equal work laws hurts those who are allegedly discriminated more than those who are not discriminated. Suppose the Canadian workers, for whatever reason, are less productive and produce fewer goods per day than American workers, resulting in lower pay for the Canadians. If a law is passed saying that Canadians have to be paid the same as Americans regardless of level of production, the result would be that no Canadians would be hired — precisely the reverse of what the law intended.

The idea of forcing “fair pay” for everyone is a hopeless quest. For one, some people (myself included) find my job deeply motivating in itself, and the fact that I derive more enjoyment from my job than my colleagues could be considered unfair. Do I deserve a lower wage in order to balance things out and make my net benefit from my job equal to that of my colleagues? How would you discount the wages of the middle class to make them fair when compared with the lower class? And even if everyone worked solely for the wages they earned, wouldn’t it seem at least possible that some form of nepotism or playing favorites would occur?

Rather than being the solution to the problem, government intervention into wages creates the problem. The government, by favoring some workers over others, creates divisions in society. There is no such thing as a free lunch in economics, and workers should be paid according to what they produce. Only the free market can guarantee equal pay for equal work.

Vincent Patsy can be reached at vapatsy@umich.edu.

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