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Six Steps in Analyzing Political Issues


Every political issue can be analyzed or argued on at least six levels. The levels are usually conflated, but they should be addressed separately even when there is overlap. Otherwise, confusion rather than clarity results. Indeed, sometimes the only way to make sense of a disagreement is to peel away the layers and inspect them one by one. The gender “wage gap” issue illustrates this dynamic.

(The wage gap is the percentage by which the rates of pay between women and men differ.)

On Equal Pay Day (April 12), Hillary Clinton prominently denounced the wage gap and vowed that her presidency would impose fair-pay practices on employers, especially the private sector ones.

Clinton’s speech was organized by the Silicon Valley job-search company Glassdoor, which also provided fresh statistics in a report entitled “Demystifying the Gender Pay Gap.”

The findings included,

  • “Men earn 24.1 percent higher base pay than women on average. In other words, women earn about 76 cents per dollar men earn.”
  • Applying statistical controls, the figure shrinks to 5.4 percent (in other words, women make 94.6 cents for every male dollar).
  • 54 percent of the gap comes from sorting men and women into jobs that pay differently. Therefore, “overt forms of bias may be a partial cause” but they are unlikely to be the main cause.
  • Salary transparency helps “eliminate hard-to-justify gender pay gaps.”

The politics are already clear, however. A Washington Times editorial entitled “Hillary’s gender wage-gap fallacy” explains, “Hillary has no doubt that ‘workplace bias’ is operating here; hence her expressed ‘outrage,’” and hence her confidence that a Clinton presidency could solve the problem.

Six steps in analyzing a political issue

The first step in analyzing any issue like this is to decide whether a phenomenon is a social problem. Assessments will vary widely. For example, most free-market advocates see nothing intrinsically wrong with wage inequality as long as the wages are agreed upon and there are no artificial barriers to contracting in the workplace — that is, no government regulation. But socialists and egalitarians view wage inequality as a problem on the face of it.

The second step is to assemble the facts of the issue, usually through conducting studies that produce statistics. Because those who view the phenomenon as a problem are the ones who are motivated to examine it, many studies and statistics come from researchers who either tilt toward a foregone conclusion or are funded by those who do. By contrast, the facts produced by those who see no social problem are often defensive; that is, they attempt to fend off “solutions” that could be imposed by force. The wage gap is atypical in that both sides of the debate often agree on the rough statistics.

Typically, the “defensive” studies emerge in response to the third level of analysis — the interpretation of what the collected facts mean. Explanations of the underlying meaning often differ wildly. For example, on one side of the divide, both Clinton and Glassdoor see discrimination. Admittedly, Glassdoor argues that the discrimination is largely unintentional and indirect rather than overt. Nevertheless, the report explains, unintentional discrimination may still cause employers to sort men and women into jobs with different pay.

From the other side of the divide, the Washington Times offers a standard free-market rebuttal. It observes,

The Bureau of Labor Statistics reported in 2014 that women employed full-time spend less time working than men: 7.8 hours compared to 8.4 hours. That’s an average of 36 fewer minutes or a 7.7 percent labor disparity — which more than accounts for the 5.4 percent difference in pay. Top producers generally get top pay. Performance counts.

Thus, the article’s subtitle is “It’s not a gap in pay, but a gap in what men and women produce.”

Women generally work fewer hours because they invest more time in caring for their families. In short, the wage gap results from women’s choices, including how long to work each day.

The fourth dynamic is to analyze the underlying theories, assumptions and definitions that create conflicting interpretations. On the wage gap, the extremes are established by politically correct liberals and free-market advocates. The two political philosophies clash across the board, from definitions of equality to the purpose of law, from the propriety of state intervention to the relationship of men and women.

Consider how disparately they view the free market. To PC liberals, the free market or laissez-faire capitalism is a tool by which men oppress and exploit women; it is a form of force. To free-market advocates, it is a mechanism for coordinating supply and demand through which individuals, male and female, express their preferences; it is a form of freedom.  

The fifth level deals with strategy — how best to solve the problem. A free-market advocate who agrees that women are underpaid would point out that the free market is a better corrective mechanism than government, because it provides strong incentives against discrimination without infringing the human right to control one’s own property, including businesses. The incentives are basic economics. If an employer offers to pay a worker less than the prevailing wage, then one of three things will happen: there will be no applicants; there will be fewer applicants to choose from; or the quality of the applicants will be poor.

At the extreme, an employer who refused to interview women altogether would hand his competitors the great advantage of an untapped pool of talent.

Similar penalties for discrimination do not exist within politics, which redistributes power and entitlements through force.

The last and sixth step is to examine any moral implications there may be to earlier steps, especially strategy. PC liberals increasingly equate morality with “social justice,” which refers to the equitable distribution of wealth, opportunities, and privileges throughout society. Achieving equity requires legally advantaging those who are deemed to be marginalized and so to have a collective claim against society at large. The redistribution occurs through the flexing of government muscle.

To free-market advocates, individual rights and nonviolence are prerequisites for morality. The key question comes down to this: “Do you resolve the problem through peaceful means, or do you use violence?” Their answer is consistently, “peaceful means.” Only then does it make sense to consider which peaceful behavior expresses the most morality.


Political discussions can be whirlwinds of fact, theory and moral pronouncement, with accusations or insults thrown in. Before boarding the whirlwind, it is useful to filter an issue through the preceding questions so that you remain the coherent voice. The voice of reason ultimately wins.

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    Wendy McElroy is an author for The Future of Freedom Foundation, a fellow of the Independent Institute, and the author of The Reasonable Woman: A Guide to Intellectual Survival (Prometheus Books, 1998).