The U.S. Commission on Civil Rights has come out four-square against the concept of comparable worth as a means of correcting pay discrimination in the work force. Instead, in a 5-to-2 vote, the commission urged the Congress and federal civil rights agencies to strictly enforce laws already on the books, such as the Equal Pay Act of 1963 and Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

The commission vote should come as no surprise, given Chairman Clarence Pendleton's views on comparable worth, which he characterized last year as the "looniest idea since 'Looney Tunes' came on the screen." He said it would "restructure our free-enterprise system into a state-controlled economy under the guise of 'fairness.' " Staff Director Linda Chavez has called it a "scheme for redistributing the wealth of this country." Creeping socialism, in other words.

The theory behind comparable worth is that some of the difference between male and female salaries results from jobs traditionally held by women being undervalued. Thus, nurses and teachers earn less than plumbers and truck drivers. Proponents of comparable worth argue that point systems used to evaluate jobs in industry can be used to reevaluate work categories so that people would be paid the same for jobs of comparable skill and responsibility -- and that this would help narrow the wage gap. Opponents argue that there is no way to evaluate worth, and that salaries should be determined by the marketplace.

Women who worked full time in 1983 earned an average of 64 cents for every dollar that men earned, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, and in 1963, an average of 60 cents for every dollar men earned. Twenty years after the passage of the Equal Pay Act the gap between the earnings of men and women has narrowed a full four cents.

The Civil Rights Commission's report attributed the gap "at least in significant part, [to] a variety of things having nothing to do with discrimination by employers, including job expectations resulting from socialization beginning in the home; educational choices of women who anticipate performing child-bearing and child-rearing functions . . . the desire of a number of women to work in the kinds of jobs which accommodate their family roles; and the intermittency of women's labor force participation . . . .

"The effects [of the above] should not be borne by innocent employers. Things that are beyond an employer's control should not be the basis for a finding that an employer has discriminated," the report noted.

Unquestionably, the factors cited by the commission have some bearing on the wage gap. In the case involving the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees v. the State of Washington, however, the plaintiffs were able to show through old newspaper ads that certain state jobs were open only to men, and that those open to women were lower-paying. They also showed that the more women dominated a job category, the lower the pay.

A briefing paper on the case prepared by the National Organization for Women's legal defense and education fund noted that a state-commissioned wage survey found that the state pays barbers more than it pays beauticians. "A woman in a predominantly female job earns an average of between $1,604 and $2,297 less per year than a male in an equally rated, but predominantly male job," the paper noted. The Washington state case, currently on appeal, potentially involves a settlement of hundreds of millions of dollars in back pay.

A survey by NOW's legal defense fund found that six states have implemented some form of pay equity; seven have adopted formal policies; 20 are conducting job evaluation studies; 20 have set up pay equity task forces; 10 are facing lawsuits or pending legal action, and 10 are now collecting data on wage discrimination. Only four have not taken any action on pay equity.

If there is any lesson to be learned about remedying pay discrimination, it is that laws on the books haven't worked -- and that the problem is so complex, so deeply entrenched, that no single tool, including comparable worth, can fix it. But a majority of states, prodded no doubt by the Washington state case, are taking the principle seriously as one tool for remedying discrimination in their work forces. Maybe, indeed, some of the wealth of the country might get redistributed. And, as a result, a female beautician supporting a family might get paid at the same rate as a male barber supporting a family.

Anything wrong with that?