So there’s this picture that’s been floating around the internet . . .
. . . and it paints a grim scene for the United States (as I’m sure its meant to); painted in black with a big zero smacked on it the United States is made to look to be in a sorry state, ranking below even such backwards countries as Pakistan and South Africa while progressive nations like Canada and Norway stand at the top in serene blue.
But the above info-graph isn’t really talking about maternity leave at all. It depicts something entirely different: government-mandated maternity leave. Now, the difference might seem trivial but the details separating government-mandated maternity leave and leave that is privately provided are essential. As my old philosophy professor used to say, “the big picture is not enough! Details are everything.”
The first distinction separating private versus mandated maternal leave is the level of choice involved. Mandated maternity leave eliminates choices, thus limiting freedom, not just for employers but for prospective employees as well. With more women in the workforce than ever before there naturally exists a high demand for maternity leave; if there wasn’t then there’d be no pressure to mandate it in the first place. However, it would be erroneous to suppose that maternity leave would be a universally desired benefit among all women. Maternity leave is expensive and some women will certainly prefer to forego such a benefit for a higher salary or to make themselves more competitive in the job market. Employers, too, can choose whether or not they want to offer maternity leave and the result is that employers who make the best offers get the employees while those making subpar offers lose prospective employees. A universal mandate destroys this entire market, instead creating one choice for everyone; worse, this choice will ultimately be made by politicians, bureaucrats and those special-interest groups with the most political clout – but not the female workforce, not prospective employees or mothers and not business owners. I think it would be better to allow individuals to make up their own minds about what they want and to let businesses compete over prospective employees.
Secondly, mandating maternity leave does not represent an added benefit. By mandating maternal leave government does not “provide” a service because it has added nothing to the economy. Instead, employers are forced to allocate a part of their capital to a benefit which they may or may not have had before and, therefore, it must come from somewhere else: that is, take-home pay or other, voluntary, benefits like retirement plans or insurance. This is because there’s only so much to go around in any given economy and government mandates add nothing to the total resources. Somehow, businesses have to produce as much as they can at as little cost as they can because, after all, running a business isn’t easy: their margins aren’t as big as most people think and over 50% of businesses fail before they even make it a couple years. In light of a government mandate like maternity leave this means discriminating. Now, we can say that businesses shouldn’t discriminate based on sex but when the government makes hiring women more expensive by mandating additional benefits for them the result is that, when presented with two equally qualified candidates, one a man and one a woman, businesses will hire the man every time.
Of course, government can try to avoid this situation by mandating paternal leave as well but this does not eliminate the issue of discrimination. Companies can simply bet against anyone more likely to have children: married people, Catholics, Mormons, Muslims etc. and instead give the jobs to young single people or older people unlikely to have children. This then becomes in turn a de-incentivation for people to have children or get married by further widening the gap between professional success and family. After all, why get married if it only makes it harder to get a job? Or, companies could just bet against everyone. Companies can rely on labor or they can rely on capital to get the job done depending on the costs involved in each. If mandates make it too expensive for example for a company to hire 1,000 employees that company can instead invest their money in capital and hire 500 employees with sophisticated machinery to do the work that 1,000 could do without the sophisticated capital. The machinery is expensive, but not as expensive as hiring an additional 500 workers with the added price of federally mandated benefits (not just maternity: if government can mandate that then why not mandate specified insurance plans, 2:1 retirement matching etc. these benefits are extremely valuable but they are also extremely expensive). Is it not better to have more families employed with a steady income than to have hundreds of families unemployed with no income at all?
Additionally, the reality is that not all businesses (mostly smaller businesses) can afford mandated paid maternity leave and, in light of a mandate, will have to choose between discrimination and going out of business. Now, government could grant exemptions but it is impossible, in light of the numerous different businesses and the circumstances in which they find themselves for government to successfully identify every business in need of an exemption. Additionally, any protection at all would not even be guaranteed because government does not necessarily do what is best, or even what is the will of the people, but what is most politically expedient. Consider how McDonald’s was granted an exemption to the HHS mandate even though they did not qualify as either a “small business” or for a religious exemption yet Catholic organizations are left in the cold despite their moral objections.
Finally, mandated maternity leave, like most government interventions, represents special treatment for a special-interest group. In this case, the group is working woman and the interest is more maternity leave. Now, it may be argued that this is a “good” special interest because it supports families but the fact of the matter is that government can only lift some groups up by pulling others down and when the government fails to treat everyone equally but values some citizens above others based on lifestyle, class or any other reason the result is injustice. Instead, it is the government’s duty to serve everyone. A better intervention would be a tax reduction. Any decrease in taxes is good but one that benefits everyone would be best. A universal tax-cut would benefit families because they would get to keep more of their money. However, it would also help prospective families by alleviating some of the financial pressures faced by young, unmarried people who often put off marriage and having children because of the high cost of education and their lower incomes. There’s no reason why promoting the well-being of our families should come at everyone else’s expense.
None of this, however, is an objection to maternity leave but an objection to a government intervention which has nothing to do with protecting our rights or even with promoting a common good. Instead, this is about forcing employees to “buy” a benefit that they may not want and forcing employers to “sell” something that they may not want to sell – much like Obamacare which forces people to buy insurance they don’t want, including contraception, abortifacient and sterilization coverage for employees. And if you don’t like it? Fine, you’ll just be taxed out of existence. It is exactly this kind of coercion that a maternal leave mandate, or any mandate, demands. While both maternal leave and healthcare are good things the use of government coercion guarantees that the price we will pay for such amenities will be obscenely high – not just financially, but also in terms of our liberty and our morality.