Last week, my "20/20" co-anchor, Elizabeth Vargas, returned from maternity leave. Her first story was on the "mommy wars."
"Why," Elizabeth asked, "has so little been done on issues like paid maternity leave; safe, affordable child care; and flexible work schedules?"
I understand her pain. Elizabeth has a lot of responsibility: a full-time job, plus two young kids at home. I would find it overwhelming. But does that mean the government should impose leave, day care, and flex-time policies on employers or make taxpayers bear the cost for the choices women make?
All these well-intended laws have unintended consequences, and the consequences are usually worse than the problem they were meant to solve. When governments require companies to provide paid maternity leave and other benefits, many firms avoid hiring women. How is that good for women?
But Elizabeth got support from Sen. Chris Dodd (D-Conn.), who said government has to take charge. "Listen, we did that on child labor laws," he said. "If we'd left it up to business alone to decide that, I suspect there would have been many who would still be employing infants."
Even if Dodd were right that it took government to end child labor -- there's evidence to suggest he's not -- is he saying women need to be protected like children? That hardly sounds enlightened.
Dodd says businesses wouldn't suffer under his mandate because "in every study that's been done on areas of productivity, profitability and growth, 90 percent of the employers [who provide such amenities] have reported either no negative impact or actually a positive benefit."
Gee, if that's true, why do we need a government mandate? If offering paid leave and day care is good for companies, they will offer those benefits. Some do already.
But other companies think the burden of such promises would bankrupt them. I wouldn't dismiss that concern so quickly. People who risk their own capital make better decisions than a politician who imposes policies on others with little risk to himself.
Elizabeth pointed out that most countries have "family friendly" laws paid for by the taxpayers. But women in those countries pay a price. In Europe, the unemployment rate for women is over 10 percent -- double the rate in the United States. From 1970 to 2003, employment in the United States increased 75 percent, by 58.9 million jobs. Yet in France, Germany and Italy, where many job benefits are mandated, employment grew only 26 percent, by 17.6 million jobs. And many of those new jobs were in government!
If a woman wants a career and a family, that's great. But why must government force other people to help her out? Forcing companies to behave in a certain way just limits the marketplace of possibilities.
Leaving workplace choices to women and employers creates better opportunities for both. The forthcoming book by Michelle Bernard of the Independent Women's Forum, "Women's Progress: How Women Are Wealthier, Healthier and More Independent Than Ever Before" points out that American women have never enjoyed more options or such a high quality of life. (http://www.spencepublishing.com/books/index.cfm?action=Product&ProductID=94) From 1997 to 2002, the number of female-owned businesses climbed 20 percent to 6.5 million firms.
That happened because in America, despite numerous attempts by bureaucrats to kill it, the entrepreneurial spirit lives. Let's not suffocate it with government rules that will only reduce women's choices.
It's wrong for politicians to treat women like damsels in need of rescue from the whims of employers. Women need what all of us need: the freedom to make decisions for themselves in a competitive marketplace.