This commentary originally appeared in the Austin American-Statesman on April 14, 2015.

Ever since Stephen F. Austin led the first 300 families to settle along the Brazos River, Texas has stood as a gateway to economic opportunity and the promise of a better life. That spirit endures to this day, so much so that Texas entices thousands of new pioneers each year.

It’s therefore no surprise that every April, Texans engage in a healthy debate on whether lingering veins of discrimination prevent women from equally partaking in the workforce.

In case you hadn’t guessed, I’m talking about Texas Equal Pay Day, a state spinoff where activists seek to extinguish the gender pay gap. Only I don’t wish to tarry over the centuries of misguided paternalism that once “sheltered” women from public life. The injustice of that isolation is now well accepted, as is its tendency to drift from concern to disrespect.

Rather, I’d like to examine how the push for equal pay acts oftentimes ends up mimicking the same mindset that brought about the past marginalization of women in the workforce.

Anyone linked on social media has probably seen a meme or two which cites a popular statistic: Women earn 77 cents for every dollar men earn. What that one-liner fails to capture is how the voluntary choices women make throughout their careers impact their lifetime earning potential.

Women, for example, tend to pursue lower-paid career paths than men. They’re more inclined to study humanities instead of math and engineering. They’re also more adverse to occupations with a high risk of workplace injury. The American Enterprise Institute found that men are 12 times more likely to get killed on the job. Employers usually reward that risk with a higher salary.

Women also take more advantage of family leave. Pew Research Center notes that among working parents, 39 percent of women say they’ve taken time off to care for a child or family member. Just 24 percent of fathers can say the same. More time at the office increases men’s productivity, tenure and on-the-job training, providing them with additional prospects for promotions or bonuses.

The alleged pay gap narrows to less than 5 percent once these factors are taken into account. There is even evidence that among single, childless urban workers between the ages of 22 and 30, women earn 8 percent more than men.

Hence, the disparity in pay is typically not the product of overt discrimination but of women engaging in a cost-benefit analysis and then deciding what major, what amount of hours and what level of workplace safety best suits them and their families.

Yes, some of those calls are curbed by pragmatic concerns — as are the career choices of men.

Here’s my question: If the wage gap is at least partially a result of personal choice, then how can the campaign against it alter the pattern unless the government imposes very intrusive regulations? For that matter, how do we reconcile the call for these regulations with our modern belief that women should be able to command their economic identity without incurring fatherly interference?

The short answer is that they can’t.

Texas Equal Pay Day rejects the economy as it is currently structured and therefore all the voluntary choices that built it. Although not its intention, the campaign is essentially saying that certain outcomes are better than others and that outcomes driven by government, not women, are better still.

No state can claim a commitment to a free economy if its laws do not acknowledge the value women bring, but recognition without respect is tasteless. Women spent years expelling misplaced paternalism. There is no reason to repeat the recipe.

Hunker is a policy analyst with the Center for Economic Freedom at the Texas Public Policy Foundation.