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The Goal Is Deeper Understanding

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Here’s a letter to a college sophomore writing a paper for one of her courses:

Ms. S__:

Thanks for your e-mail.

You ask for my thoughts on the U.S. Women’s Soccer team suing to receive pay equal to that of the U.S. Men’s Soccer team. Alas, because I’m unfamiliar with the details of the suit, I’m in no position to comment on it. Ditto for the recent decision [2] of the U.S. Soccer Federation to equalize the pay.

But I will make one substantive point: It’s illegitimate to infer from the fact that female soccer players are paid less than male soccer players that female soccer players necessarily are victims of unjust discrimination. The likely explanation for the difference in pay is simply the fact that the market demand for watching soccer played by men is higher than is the market demand for watching soccer played by women. One can criticize the general public for having such a preference, but if such a preference exists, it and it alone is sufficient to explain the difference in pay.

If you’re skeptical of my reasoning, consider this report from GQ [3]: “The top 10 earning male models earned a combined total of $8 million last year, compared to the $83 million the top supermodels of the world acquired [4] over the same year.”

Why are female fashion models paid so much more than are male fashion models? If discrimination is the only source of pay differences between men and women, then it must be true that in the fashion industry a huge bias exists against men. But surely the more likely explanation for women’s much-higher pay in this industry is the fact that the demand for clothing modeled by women is much higher than is the demand for clothing modeled by men.

Reality is far more complicated than it appears on its surface. Further, ‘outcomes’ observed in commercial markets – contrary to popular belief – are not the results of battles between good and evil but, instead, are almost always the innocent consequences of countless individuals making nuanced trade-offs as they spend their own money.

Donald J. Boudreaux
Professor of Economics
Martha and Nelson Getchell Chair for the Study of Free Market Capitalism at the Mercatus Center
George Mason University
Fairfax, VA 22030