Child Labor: A look at a statist scare story and how to show it baseless
We free marketists argue that there should be no government whatsoever. No arbitrary laws restricting trade. One such law, present in all industrialized countries, involves “child labor”. The term “labor” usually conjures up the thought of hard work, sweat, and toil. Statists argue that it is necessary to forbid such a possibility so that young, vulnerable children are not threatened or abused by it. We argue that there should be no such restrictions and statists think we are mad. However, like most statist arguments, this is completely ignorant of reality and the needs of society.
If we look at history, when child labor laws were first instituted, we note that they were pushed for principally by unions. Now we can say that unions were well-intentioned for the children, and this probably is partially the case, but there is more behind it. Child labor is cheap. The unions wanted jobs and wanted better pay. If they were successful in eliminating a cheap group of workers, employers would be forced to hire them and pay higher wages (due to experience, expectations, etc). So it is no surprise that unions would actively campaign to bar children from jobs and pack them into schools (mandatory schooling).
First, we should ask if this feared child labor will even exist in our advanced society. Think for a minute. Try to imagine children being thrown into mines or factories to slave all day for terrible wages in our society. Forgetting the point that such jobs are in sharp decline in developed countries, who would subject their children to this? Most people would rather starve so their children could live. It is only as a last resort that children are sent off to work.
But is the possibility of child labor still valid? Indeed, who did not grow up doing one chore or another, perhaps with compensation. But we never deem this child labor (or slavery, if not paid) and laws restricting such do not apply to families, if ordered by a man and/or woman who arbitrarily is recognized as the master of the child. If it is acceptable for a child to do chores in a house, why cant they do other tasks outside the household for compensation?
Why should children be forbidden from acquiring valuable experience early, as well as money? They will learn the value of a dollar from a young age and be able, later in life, to make more educated decisions than an individual who has not had such a past. As for experience, the more one acquires, the more they will be paid. So when we free marketists argue for the elimination of minimum wage and child labor laws, the net effect will be that everyone will be paid more. Twelve year olds will get $4 an hour instead of $0. Eighteen year olds, with six years experience already, will get $10 an hour, or more, instead of the current minimum of $7.25. A third benefit, related to experience, is the people skills the child will acquire earlier. Whether employed by a friend, neighbor, or stranger, the child will learn how to interact with their fellow man. The child will also develop networks that will help them secure future jobs.
A parent cares for their child greatly and wants what is best for them. They clearly would not send the child off into the mines. Nor are they likely to allow a child under ten or twelve to work, unless truly necessary. So where will a child work, if not mines or factories? Well that is open to much discussion, but here are some examples. A child seeking experience could do chores for a neighbor. Perhaps they are good at cleaning houses. One day, they could own a housecleaning business. Who does not want their child to be an entrepreneur?
Alternatively, the child could work at a store, doing simple jobs, such as stocking shelves or bagging groceries. The former is already done by all stores and is quite simple. So why have an older, experienced worker do it when a younger person is fully capable? The latter is present at some stores and is a great service to customers, but is usually done by an older worker paid at minimum wage. This creates a great expense for the store that prevents many stores from providing this service to potentially happier customers. It is not worth $7.25 an hour to put things into bags and load a cart. A child can do this task for $4 and hour, be satisfied with that wage, and observe how to be a cashier.
Why are we denying our children these valuable opportunities? Why are we stifling our economy that could have more consumers, better educated consumers, better wages, better this, better that? Because of some irrational fear that child labor means mine and factory work. This is complete nonsense and can really only be laughed at. Statists have no faith in parents to know what is best for their children. Legalizing something does not mean it will occur. Perhaps most parents will be against their child working, but maybe a few see the benefits and are supportive. Their children are being denied a great opportunity to advance their lives earlier and further than others.
Originally written on 30 January 2011.