What\'s Wrong With Child Labor?

It's like asking "What's wrong with that job?". The answer is: it depends.

It depends if it makes sense. It depends on the job. It depends on one's prospects. If I'm thinking about taking a job, I weigh the pros and cons; immediate and long-term. Sure, the pay is good, but where will it take me in 5, 10, or 15 years? Is it a stepping-stone to a better job? Will it provide me with skills that will be valued in the future? It's not usually an easy answer. How much more important is the future than the present? If the salary is awful - like an internship that pays next to nothing - but gives me an opportunity, maybe it's worthwhile. Maybe. Maybe I'm wasting time in a field that has no future, or in a career in which I'll never excel. Maybe it's worthwhile, but I still need to pay the rent. The future is important, but I get hungry every few hours.

Still, for most people in America, the choice is not between investment in one's self, and eating. The choices may be difficult, but the opportunities are there. It's just a matter of deciding how comfortable one is sacrificing now, for expected future rewards.

Now imagine you live in a country where opportunities are few. Imagine you have six children, and you've never heard of anyone from your town getting a job with IBM. In fact, you've never heard of IBM. Investment in your children is expensive. Sending even one of them to a university would mean that your family couldn't eat. That's clearly not an option. You're also concerned that the next time one of them gets sick, it'll be hard to afford the medicine you'll need. In this case, your concerns for the present are more likely to outweigh your concerns about the distant future. Sending a child to school for sixteen years isn't necessarily wise if it involves great hardship, and if there's a significant chance of that same child dying of malaria before he or she even graduates. Perhaps, in such a scenario, six years of schooling makes more sense. Perhaps.

But, if one day a textile company announces it will be hiring able-bodied children at good wages, even six years of schooling might seem too much. Maybe if your three eldest children work, you can afford to send the other three to ten years of school! Is it then worthwhile? Perhaps. It's a difficult decision to say the least. But who should make that decision? If some lawmaker decides that it's wrong for children to work, is that same lawmaker going to pay for the education of all of those children? Is that lawmaker aware of the circumstances of each such family faced with similar choices? Will that same lawmaker provide jobs for over-educated students?

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"If some lawmaker decides

"If some lawmaker decides that it’s wrong for children to work, is that same lawmaker going to pay for the education of all of those children? Is that lawmaker aware of the circumstances of each such family faced with similar choices? Will that same lawmaker provide jobs for over-educated students?"

I'm afraid those are the kind of questions that politicians want to be asked. "Yes," they'll reply, "we can provide jobs, an education, etc."

"I’m afraid those are the

"I’m afraid those are the kind of questions that politicians want to be asked. 'Yes,' they’ll reply, 'we can provide jobs, an education, etc.'"

This sounds like the basis of a libertarian case for children's entitlements: compensation tendered to remedy the abrogation of economic freedoms.

Carnival of the Capitalists

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I appreciate the honesty

I appreciate the honesty with which this issue is being addressed, so please don't take my critique the wrong way. We need more discussion and less patronization on this issue. Your thoughts move us in that direction.

But couldn't your argument about child labor apply to any activity involving children, such as child prostitution? I'm not trying to make a purposefully inflammatory counterargument, but isn't that a form of "labor" that families have chosen in the past and could choose now with their meager opportunities? Should THAT be allowed? Should that be considered legitimate, and if not, why not? Isn't that another case of the family doing what's best in a situation of limited opportunity?

The argument you put forth focuses only on the interests of the family, or rather, the interests of the family as understood by the principle decision makers. The children have no absolute say by their very nature and the nature of hierarchical family dynamics. Here's my point: though we may find the activities abhorrent, neither child labor nor child prostitution are chiefly wrong because they involve labor or sex. They are wrong because children have no ability to choose those activities. They cannot be considered responsible or even rational individuals (even though they may be, we have to make an arbitrary allowance for growth in our young). And furthermore those activities REQUIRE explicit consent for those activities to not be considered appropriation by others - which is why adult labor and prostitution is considered acceptable by most libertarians.

I'm not sure if it's appropriate for the gov't to choose the activity appropriate for children (why must education be mandated?). But the operative idea here is that whatever is decided about the child's activity cannot be guaranteed to take into account the child's own concept of self-interest, because the child by definition cannot be expected to know what is in his or her self-interest. For that reason, the child cannot be expected to "rent" his or her labor of his or her own accord. I don't think it follows that parents or the gov't or anybody else can either. The child, by reason of immaturity, is effectively out of the market for labor.

If you flip the script,

If you flip the script, couldn't one argue:

Similarly, isn't the child then unable to choose whether he/she should attend school in lieu of working? If a child is incapable of determining his/her own self-interest, whether that be school, manual labor, or prostitution, somebody must be charged with the responsibility of making those decisions on his/her behalf.

I believe it to be a commonly held, and just belief that the parent(s) of the children in question ought to have the most input with regards to whether the child works, or toils. It is defenseable from a libertarian viewpoint, as well - the parents have the greatest incentive to see that child's existence is bettered (aside from perhaps, the child, who we have deterined is unable to rationalize his decisions.) They also benefit from having the most complete knowledge with regards to the child/family's specific situation. This does not eliminate, but certainly mitigates Hayek's knowledge problem that is certainly exacerbated by the myriad degrees of separation in any bureaucracy.

Let the parents raise the children.

What's Wrong With Child

What's Wrong With Child Labor?
That's the title question of Bill Cholenski's most recent post on Catallarchy. And it is sure to guarantee a lot of knee jerk reaction if the "right" (or is that "left") people read it. Bill answers his question like this:...

Historically children were

Historically children were expected to work and their roles were societally programed. It had little to do with what the child or the parent decided. If you were in an agricultural society, children would work to plant and harvest food. Aside from the farmer, the children and some hired help, there was no one else to do the work, so there was little choice. This went on until fairly recently. Now with mechanization and everything available cheap at the store this is no longer necessary.
My wife, who grew up on a farm, tells me how she hated farm chores such as picking cotton and making canned goods. This did not keep her from getting a college education. Remember that summer vacation was originally so kids could help with the harvest.
In other countries, the role of children will obviously vary according to circumstances, so it’s not one size fits all. Anyway, what is so great about our child rearing practices? Children in America have no immediate function, other than to be like ill behaved pets or parental projects to develop perfect humans. Mostly they sit watching TV and getting fat. It would be better for them if they did do some work.

It's seems you are saying

It's seems you are saying child labor is wrong when it's not the best available option for the individual. But in a market employment only occurs when it is the best availble option in the judgment of the worker. And that means there is nothing at all wrong with employing children, doesn't it?

Carnival of the Capitalists

Carnival of the Capitalists Goes Back to College!
Before we get into our usual Carnival of the Capitalists rants, we wanted to take a few moments to remember one of the greatest management thinkers and visionaries of all time, Peter Drucker, who passed away this past week....