Kristof on International Labor Standards

Nicholas Kristof has been one of the few mainstream journalists consistently giving free trade a fair appraisal. In a recent column, he took on international child labor standards, which though often well-intentioned, have the opposite effect of that intended. [via Marginal Revolution]

And that's the problem when Americans get on their high horses about child labor, without understanding the cruel third world economics that cause it. The push by Democrats like John Kerry for international labor standards is well intentioned, but it is also oblivious to third world realities.

Look, I feel like Scrooge when I speak out against bans on sweatshops or on child labor. In the West, it's hard to find anyone outside a university economics department who agrees with me. But the basic Western attitude ? particularly among Democrats and warm-and-fuzzy humanitarians ? sometimes ends up making things worse. Consider the results of two major American efforts to ban imports produced by child labor:

In 1993, when Congress proposed the U.S. Child Labor Deterrence Act, which would have blocked imports made by children (if it had passed), garment factories in Bangladesh fired 50,000 children. Many ended up in worse jobs, like prostitution.

Though he understands that, in their own eyes, the parents of these children see working as the best opportunity to enhance their lives among the available alternatives, I think he wrongly evaluates the costs and benefits of schooling.

In the village of Toukoultoukouli in Chad, I visited the 17 girls and 31 boys in the two-room school. Many children, especially girls, never attend school, which ends after the fourth grade.

So a 12-year-old boy working in Toukoultoukouli has gotten all the education he can. Instead of keeping him from working, Westerners should channel their indignation into getting all children into school for at least those four years ? and there is one way that could perhaps be achieved.

It's bribery. The U.N. World Food Program runs a model foreign aid effort called the school feeding program. It offers free meals to children in poor schools (and an extra bribe of grain for girl students to take home to their families). Almost everywhere, providing food raises school attendance, particularly for girls. "If there were meals here, parents would send their kids," said Muhammad Adam, a teacher in Toukoultoukouli.

So let's see - parents, who are usually pretty good judges of these sorts of things, believe that their children working result in a better outcome than going to school. Yet, Kristof automatically jumps to the conclusion that schooling is more valuable than working, and therefore encourages his readers to 'bribe' them to send their children to school.

I don't necessarily disagree with Kristof. It may be that a meal is the marginal difference between the benefits of schooling vs working in the eyes of the parents making the decisions. But Kristof avoids a more difficult question - Does schooling truly benefit the child?

I know it's not kosher to even raise such a question, but hey, that's why I blog. In my view, the purpose of schooling in poverty-stricken countries (and in Western countries) is to gain skills that make the future worker more productive.

It is not a given that schooling is more efficient at conferring these skills than working is. Many times, on the job training is much more efficient at doing so than schooling. It could very well be that making children sit in school for many hours a day through child labor laws or enticing them to do so with free meals prevents them from gaining valuable job skills they could otherwise be receiving in a more practical, hands-on environment.

Parents usually know what's best for their children. I trust them and their children to decide, based on their local knowledge of the situation, whether schooling or working would better benefit their children.

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Jonathon, excerpted the

Jonathon, excerpted the following on child labor from this paper by Thomas E. Woods, Jr., which I linked to at my site today.

"Those who, out of a combination of legitimate humanitarian concern and unfortunate economic ignorance, attempt to accelerate this process by means of legislation prohibiting child labor only add to the very misery they claim to be alleviating. It is only because such humanitarians have spent their lives in the fantastically wealthy capitalist societies of the West that they could have failed to realize that dire poverty, which makes child labor inevitable, has been the lot of the entire human race for the great majority of its history. The fact is, legislation or no legislation, the typical family in a very poor country still needs the income the child?s work brings. If the law prevents their children from being employed legally, then?supposing they do not want to starve?they are likely to employ their children illegally, where conditions are almost certain to be far worse. In fact, in exceedingly poor societies where liberal humanitarians have prohibited child labor, it is not uncommon to find that the children wind up in prostitution?hardly an improvement in their welfare, to say the least. In fact, Oxfam, the British charity, recently reported that when factory owners in Bangladesh gave in to pressure to fire child laborers, thousands starved or went into prostitution."

I found Woods entire paper an interesting read.

interesting question. I

interesting question. I think it's a question of personal liberty, right? i.e. The fact that you think children are better educated by working is right and good (I assume you are trying to be country-specific, and that you probably didn't drop out) but what do they think? And how much weight does what they think have against what their parents think? I mean, clearly the parents aren't always choosing under conditions of abstract rationality- my guess is most such choices are made under extreme economic duress. Since, as a reasonable human being you probably wouldn't advocate letting a parent eat a child if they were hungry, then certainly you can concede that the child has some rights here seperate from the parents economic interests, no?

I don't see what's wrong with a worldwide ban on child labor or sweat shops then. In fact, a person may want to argue that the former would decrease the supply of labor, and bring about a corresponding increase in wages that make up for it. Or that the latter would have a marginal effect on prices, but few harmful effects on the labor pool in the developed countries (after all, where else will they go?)

-matt

interesting question. I

interesting question. I think it?s a question of personal liberty, right?

No, it's a question about consequences. What consequences are suffered by children who are forced to go to school instead of being allowed to work?

i.e. The fact that you think children are better educated by working is right and good (I assume you are trying to be country-specific, and that you probably didn?t drop out) but what do they think?

Actually, I stated above that I think this applies to Western countries. Most of school for me was a huge waste of time. I wish that laws allowed children like me to opt out and pursue apprenticeships, training, etc. Because of truancy laws, the market for this type of opportunity is diminished even when children are allowed to leave school.

And how much weight does what they think have against what their parents think? I mean, clearly the parents aren?t always choosing under conditions of abstract rationality- my guess is most such choices are made under extreme economic duress. Since, as a reasonable human being you probably wouldn?t advocate letting a parent eat a child if they were hungry, then certainly you can concede that the child has some rights here seperate from the parents economic interests, no?

I definitely think children after a certain age should have the right to determine their own future, even if it goes against the wishes of the parents. However, child labor laws do not allow children to do that. They force children into schools.

I don?t see what?s wrong with a worldwide ban on child labor or sweat shops then.

You are depriving children of an opportunity to better their future when the benefits of working outweigh the benefits of schooling.

In fact, a person may want to argue that the former would decrease the supply of labor, and bring about a corresponding increase in wages that make up for it.

That does not benefit the child who is not allowed to work.

Or that the latter would have a marginal effect on prices, but few harmful effects on the labor pool in the developed countries (after all, where else will they go?)

It will have harmful effects on those children who benefit more from working than from schooling.

matt, Where have you been?

matt,

Where have you been? Long time no see.

The bribes Kristof favors

The bribes Kristof favors don't sound especially dangerous - to the bribed. Problem is the bribes are of course paid with stolen money.

Problem is the bribes are of

Problem is the bribes are of course paid with stolen money.

From the article, it sounded like the bribes would be paid with privately donated money.

Hey Micha, I was having a

Hey Micha, I was having a difficult time balancing this stuff with my schoolwork so I elected to abstain for awhile. Hopefully I can handle it this time :) How do you do it?

Jonathan,

No, it?s a question about consequences. What consequences are suffered by children who are forced to go to school instead of being allowed to work?
wow, is this a new approach? What about protecting their autonomy, and preserving their independence? What about a Child's right to be equipped the tools to choose for himself?

I wish that laws allowed children like me to opt out and pursue apprenticeships, training, etc. Because of truancy laws, the market for this type of opportunity is diminished even when children are allowed to leave school.
you know I actually agree with you to a significant extent. If you look at the planning that went into public schools it was all very "let's make children good subservient citizens" and "teach them to respect authority." I think schooling is preferable to hard labor, but I am completely in favor of a more directed (by the students) high school system that's less like teaching and more like apprenticeship.

I definitely think children after a certain age should have the right to determine their own future, even if it goes against the wishes of the parents. However, child labor laws do not allow children to do that. They force children into schools.
Well the trick is that Children have to be equipped with the neccesary tools to choose. Letting a 16-year old child with a third grade education out into the world to "choose" is like a holding a gun to his head and walking him to the soup kitchen. I'm not saying these are simple issues, I'm just saying I tend to agree with the supreme court on such matters.

You are depriving children of an opportunity to better their future when the benefits of working outweigh the benefits of schooling.
right, but benefits according to whom? Measured wholly as a factor in income? I haven't seen any evidence that the benefits do outweigh those of schooling, for one.

That does not benefit the child who is not allowed to work.
via his parents it does/could.

The question should be

The question should be answered in terms of duty: what duty do the parents have to their children? I reject the Rothbardian notion that parents can abandon their children at any point they desire or abort it on demand precisely because the common law has always recognised the duty of a person who places another in danger to take every reasonable action to remedy that danger. Parents bringing a child into the world are bringing a helpless human being into the world, and they have a duty to care for the child until he can care for himself.

The problem is that what constitutes the reasonable standard of care for a parent to his child is relative. It's based on what is reasonable, a term that differs as the surrounding society changes. Although there are some broad norms, what's reasonable for a $100k/yr. East Coast elite is substantially different from what's reasonable for a Third World family. The problem is when elites presume that what's reasonable in their situation is reasonable in general in all situations. That simply isn't the case.

So, the argument is a question of duty and reasonableness, not of rights or consequences. That should muddy the waters. :)

- Josh

Bear in mind that you have

Bear in mind that you have very limited enforcement structures in third world countries. Any scheme that tries to use external incentives and controls quickly gets distorted beyond recognition by corruption and collusion unless it is continually managed on-site.

I have some experience with these sort of things, since my wife and I not only home-schooled our own children in South Africa, but also managed semi-literate (in English, at least) farm workers and occasionally their wives and children. What successes we had depended on teaching only the most fundamental idea, as P.J. O'Rourke put it, "There's only one basic human right, the right to do as you damn well please. And with it comes the only basic human duty, the duty to take the consequences." Once someone learns that good consequences flow from good decisions (if indeed they do in a particular country), they seek out educational opportunities that reward them in ways they appreciate.

Without that basic idea, the ways that institutions get twisted could fill volumes. My brother-in-law worked for a multi-national corporation distributing textbooks to underprivileged schools--they would stay locked in closets to prevent children from damaging such precious gifts. Principals in remote areas run their boarding schools as brothels, supplying pupils as prostitutes to earn extra income. Kindergartners are not allowed to see books, because that would put them at an unfair advantage and cause too much disruption to the teachers, when reading lessons are officially begun in the first grade.

Every new rule you make to lop off an unintended consequence sprouts another seven heads.

I agree, as far as it

I agree, as far as it goes.

But please bear in mind that the "situation" Third World parents have to take into account doesn't exist in a vacuum. These sweatshops may be the best available alternative, but there's a pretty good change the range of available alternatives is set by the government, in collusion with sweatshop employers. As Adam Smith said, when the government regulates relations between workmen and their masters, it usually has the masters for their counsellors.

For example, I think the range of alternatives might be considerably more attractive if sweatshop workers and their children hadn't been evicted from their land, and robbed of customary property rights in it, so feudal landlords could enclose it for cash crop farming. Their available alternatives might also be a good deal less grim if the government didn't stack the rules of the game against the bargaining power of labor, and create a buyer's market for labor. And the U.S. government has played a major role in putting such governments into power and keeping them in power (e.g., organizing an independent union was a criminal offense in Indonesia under Suharto, who was installed in a U.S.-supported coup).

Labor organizers and leaders of peasant cooperatives don't get tortured, murdered, and "disappeared" in free markets. But that's just the kind of "free market" an awful lot of American capital seems drawn to. I wonder why.

Labor organizers and leaders

Labor organizers and leaders of peasant cooperatives don?t get tortured, murdered, and ?disappeared? in free markets. But that?s just the kind of ?free market? an awful lot of American capital seems drawn to. I wonder why.
I'm not so sure about this. Which free market do you have in mind?

Kevin, I might add that you have a very good point wrt the Adam Smith thing- I'd be very suspicious of any such plan if it was passed by the US gov't to affect US business. Adam SMith's comment is well borne out by nearly all US history aside from the New Deal. Even then the masters were very vocal. You are also correct about Suharto and the countless other US client states with extra business firendly gov'ts.

Josh, I happen to agree with most of what you said. This is about duty and reasonableness, undoubtedly as well as rights and consequences. No reason to leave any out.

"Letting a 16-year old child

"Letting a 16-year old child with a third grade education out into the world to ?choose? is like a holding a gun to his head and walking him to the soup kitchen."

For 10000+ years most people made their way through life with far LESS than a 3rd-grade education. Since conditions in the Third World closely approximate those of that long period of human history, I don't see how you justify this argument.

Noah, Adequate dental care

Noah,
Adequate dental care was also unavailable for that period. Perhaps we should all cease brushing our teeth. Or doing the innumerable other things that could not be done before.

Of course we won't do that, but somehow our attitudes change when we talk about people remote from our day to day existence. A former Chief Economist at the World Bank (not Stiglitz) argued that the theory of comparative advantage would instruct Uruguayans to all become sheepherders and import their doctors forever. I think your traditionalist argument would support this pretty intuitively disturbing idea as well.
-Matt

Our attitudes are different

Our attitudes are different when we talk about the third world because the third world is different. I would have thought that obvious, maybe you've never visited a third world country? As per your example, brushing your teeth is a pretty low priority when you're not sure you'll be able to eat tomorrow.

No one is denying that luxuries like comfortable working conditions, schools, medicine, etc. are valuable. What's being argued is that among the desperately poor, these things have low priority. What really seperates the first from the third world is that in the former, obtaining the basic necessities of life, as in food/water/shelter, is not generally a daily concern, whereas in the latter it is. Can you not see that if you're starving, it's more important to eat than to get an education or keep your teeth clean?

And where in comparative advantage trade theory does it say that trade relationships become permanent? Don't forget that the gains from trade are wealth-creating! Trading sheep for medicine now earns the Uruguayans income from which to save and accumulate capital, so they can be doctors in the future.

An NPR piece on the Maasai

An NPR piece on the Maasai reaction to Kenyan government education is here. I would have preferred to hear more directly from the Maasai, though, instead of having it interpreted for me by a reporter that can't decide whether "culture" or "education" is the higher priority for social engineering; or who doesn't see the irony in these two sentences:

For Kenya, emerging from decades of authoritarian rule, modern education is a top priority. In 2003, incoming President Mwai Kibaki made primary education compulsory and free.

Our attitudes are different

Our attitudes are different when we talk about the third world because the third world is different. I would have thought that obvious, maybe you?ve never visited a third world country? As per your example, brushing your teeth is a pretty low priority when you?re not sure you?ll be able to eat tomorrow.
I've visited Laos Cambodia Vietnam and Thailand. I think you're missing the whole point of my analogy (or perhaps the whole point of analogies in General, since you seem to assume that my toothbrushing comment somehow implied that I thought food money should be spent on mouthwash.) Clearly my point is that people will have to demonstrate that there is such a trade-off between education and food. I haven't seen any such indication here. My analogy was in response to what seemed, oddly, to be a sort of liberal "culturalist/traditionalist" argument you made.

What?s being argued is that among the desperately poor, these things have low priority. Can you not see that if you?re starving, it?s more important to eat than to get an education or keep your teeth clean?
a. I don't think that the trade-off is obvious, especially given the sort of incentives being offered under this plan.
b. The old "teach a man to fish" argument seems to apply here.

And where in comparative advantage trade theory does it say that trade relationships become permanent? Don?t forget that the gains from trade are wealth-creating! Trading sheep for medicine now earns the Uruguayans income from which to save and accumulate capital, so they can be doctors in the future.
I believe that one of David Ricardo's two assumptions is that opportunity costs don't vary with size of output or time. In fact this assumption is crucial to his rejection of primitive forms of "infant-industry" argument, inwhich protection changes the opportunity costs and can improve a country's standing wrt comparitive advantage.
opp costs, don't vary with time or size of output.

Your site is really good.

Your site is really good.