Tuesday, April 20, 2004

Re: Fair at Work?

There is one point that I want to get out there before getting to the meat of your question: If individuals were afforded special consideration for family life, then it must apply equally to dads as it would to moms. I see no reason to favor women in that regard over men in similar circumstances. Indeed, providing unequal treatment in that regard would most likely be judged to violate the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment.

As to whether the government should afford some special protection to parents in the workplace, I have two problems. First, the free market is generally a good thing and unless there is a demonstrated market failure, if workers provide valuable skills and demand greater flexibility in the workplace so that they can better balance a family, one could argue that the market would provide such opportunities. Second, there is the potential that government regulation along the lines that you propose would end up hurting those people who decide not to have kids and instead focus on work. I do not see any good reason why government should weigh in and favor parents over non-parents in the workplace.

That being said, I do think there is a market failure. Often, "non-traditional" workers are discriminated against in the workplace. And every workplace I have observed firsthand comes in the "one-size-fits-all" variety, although that size does not in fact fit all. Workers who propose nontraditional working arrangements are generally not well received, even though they may offer value to that employer and be tremendously happier as a result. So there is room for the government to step in and encourage innovation (tax incentives might be one way to approach the problem).

One difficulty that exists in encouraging flexibility is that it is really hard to measure the value of any given employee. Because workers cannot easily weed out the lazy workers from the really valuable employees, it is hard to create different working conditions to suit different workers. Another problem is that workers just do not have a lot of market power to demand changes. Realistically, a job applicant cannot sit down with a prospective employer and propose his or her own hours and workplace conditions. If the government were to step in, I suggest they do so in a way that gives workers more power to demand flexibility--but only to the extent that those changes would be a positive for the worker and offer greater profitability for the employer.

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