Mandated Paid Maternity Leave . . . Again

Time recently published an article discussing the ever-debated issue of mandated paid maternity leave. The article’s author, Belinda Luscombe, titled her article, “Please Stop Acting as if Maternity Leave is a Vacation.”

Included with the article were the standard statistics. The United States is the only OECD country to not offer guaranteed paid leave, etc. etc. But she added some additional “arguments” as well.

She discussed how many individuals reacted to Obama’s recent announcement that he would sign a memorandum offering federal employees a minimum of six weeks paid leave when a child arrives. She noted that many people stated something along the following lines, “if people want to have kids, we, the taxpayers, shouldn’t have to pay for their time off.” She describes such responses as “juvenile.”

She continues on, pointing out that the survival of our species depends on people having children and that family leave is, alas, not a vacation. She concludes her article by stating that “yes, parents choose to have children. But they’re doing it for all of us, like jury duty, or being the designated driver….they’re taking one for the team.”

As an economist, there are some topics I consider to be “zombies.” That is, no matter how many times good theory and corresponding data seems to disprove truly terrible ideas, they always seem to come back again, preying upon people’s unsuspecting brains. Mandated paid leave is one of these zombie topics.

On this blog and elsewhere I have discussed how mandated paid maternity leave (though the same reasoning applies to any mandate) would put an undue hardship on businesses of all sizes, reduce women’s wages, and lead to discrimination against women of reproductive age in the workplace. Luscombe makes the point that many poor women are unfairly forced to choose between work and family, that mandating paid leave would help those of limited means. Though well-intentioned, the author and others who share her mindset fail to understand that such a policy would not only fail to help poor women, but would likely make their working lives much more difficult (they’ll be much less likely to be employed). With regard for “taking one for the team,” this justification seems silly. Many people engage in activities that are “good for humanity.” People go to school, eat right, and exercise. All these things are likely to have positive external benefits. Alas, I’m not asking taxpayers to subsidize my gym membership and my spinach salad because it’s “good for the team.”

Aside from the patently backward economic reasoning, there is another big problem with this article. For many advocating mandated paid leave, they justify their position by claiming such a thing is a right.

The “right” to mandated paid leave is an example of a “positive right.” A positive right is one that requires someone else provide an individual with a particular good or service if he or she cannot obtain it on their own. This is in contrast to a “negative right” which require nothing from others—only that they leave you alone. Examples would be things like freedom of speech, religion, and assembly. Note the difference between these rights and the “right” to paid leave. The negative right to free speech requires nothing of anyone else, only that they do not interfere with your speech. Paid leave, on the other hand, requires someone to provide it for you. (A good video summary can be found here.)

There are a variety of problems with the idea of positive rights. It seems to me that the most important problem is that positive and negative rights cannot exist simultaneously. As Tibor Machan points out, “positive rights trump freedom.” Positive rights mean that others can be compelled by force to provide something for someone else. It follows that those actually providing the good or service cannot refuse and may be forced to provide for someone else regardless of their personal choices or goals.

It follows from this that we cannot have positive rights and negative rights at the same time (unless the positive rights are guaranteed by a voluntary contract). These two concepts are in direct conflict with one another. If we are truly free, how do others have the “right” to force you to pay for their choices?

I tend to find economic arguments far more convincing than philosophical ones (hence why I’m an economist). In the case of mandated paid leave, I think those who understand economic theory and have truly looked at the data see the problems such a policy would present. This article and the issue it addresses, however, may require a different kind of rebuttal than one most economists are able to provide. When individuals believe that they are entitled to a particular good or service, economic arguments may fail to persuade. It’s not so much an argument about economics, but one about rights.


Abigail R. Hall is a Research Fellow at the Independent Institute and an Assistant Professor of Economics at the University of Tampa.
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