David R. Henderson  

Anti-Child Labor or Anti-Market?

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Robin Hanson has an excellent post on child labor that co-blogger Bryan Caplan has cited. I think Robin doesn't go far enough, though, in one respect. He points out that tiger moms often force their kids to do things that, to us great unwashed, look a lot like child labor, but without pay. He doesn't emphasize, although he briefly mentions, that children are forced to go to school. In other words, school goes beyond child labor. It is forced child labor.

It reminds me of a story I read in Reader's Digest when I was a kid. A child was asked, after his first day of school, what he thought of school. "It's alright," he said, "but it's sure going to cut into my day."

Robin emphasizes correctly that the objection to child labor seems to be based mainly on the idea that the child is making money. One of his critical commenters points out that there is still a lot of child labor on family farms. Most of that is not paid for. I remember when I was a teenager in a school in the farm belt of Canada, some of my teenage colleagues (some as young as 13) not showing up for school in September and early October because they were driving trucks and tractors during the harvest. I asked them about it and one kid told me that he was driving a tractor in the summer as early as age 9.

So my conclusion is that the law against child labor is really a law against children making money. Thanks, government.


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CATEGORIES: Labor Market



COMMENTS (11 to date)
Stefano writes:

I don't understand your position.

If sending one's children to unwanted music lessons or to school is "forced labor", then you should argue for more strict child labor rules, not against them.

David R. Henderson writes:

Stefano,
No, I'm against all government laws banning child labor. I trust parents, on average, more than I trust government. The downside is that you'll have some Tiger Moms. That's better than having the government make rules banning people from productive work experiences.
The main thing causing the decline in child labor is not laws but parents.

Ben writes:

Hi David,

Just want to clarify: is your position that the historical effect of child labor laws has been, on net, negative? Or just that the laws should be now repealed?

Daublin writes:

I have to point out that we separately have laws about child abuse and child neglect. What cases do labor laws pick up that these other laws would not?

Daniel Klein writes:

BTW, some notable sufferers of child labor:

Ben Franklin
Walt Whitman
Mark Twain

Just think how much American letters would have been advanced if these individuals had done 12 years of schooling. Or even college!

David R. Henderson writes:

@Ben,
Good question. Answer: the first. The historical effect has been on net negative.

Is this a joke? Someone help me here...

As one working to combat child labor, posts like this one come to me when my Google alert sees the search term. I saw this once and found it so ridiculous that I just ignored it. Saw it again...same response. This is not the third or fourth time that this topic is carrying on. So I ask...are you for real?

Chile labor is clearly defined by umpteen international organizations. EG: "all forms of slavery or practices similar to slavery, the sale or trafficking of children, debt bondage or serfdom; the forcible recruitment of children for use in armed conflict; the commercial sexual exploitation of children; the involvement of children in drug trafficking; and work that is likely to harm children's health, safety or morals."

Pretty much, "getting paid" has nothing to do with it. It's whether the child is in a constructive, nurturing and supportive environment or not. A child working a 10-hour day on his family farm during a harvest is entirely different than one at the end of a whip in a coal mine. Music lessons? School? Are you kidding me? Is it even possible that y'all are making such comparisons?

I guess I'll take the risk of looking like a moron, should there be some tongue-in-cheek thing here I'm not getting...

Komori writes:

@Ryan Chamberlain

Your definition of child labor is much more restrictive (and rational) than that used by the various state governments in the US, which is the definition David is referring to.

I have personal experience with this. When I wanted to get a job as a high school freshman, the guy who hired me had to get a child labor law waiver from the state before he could hire me. To do things like run blueprints and do drafting assistance. Nothing I did (I wanted the money, certainly wasn't forced in to it) was any more strenuous or onerous than some of the tiger mom stuff. Rather less so, in fact, and hey, I could buy books and pizza later.

You have to be careful with blanket condemnations like you were going with there. Our politicians like to make language as meaningless or multi-contextual as possible, because it makes it harder to actually hold a discussion that ends up with them catching any blame.

George F. Haley writes:

"Chile labor is clearly defined by umpteen international organizations. EG: "all forms of slavery"

OK.

"or practices similar to slavery,"

so much for "clearly defined," eh?

" the sale or trafficking of children, debt bondage or serfdom;"

Trafficking is overstated, and its not clear what "debt-bondage" means. Does that mean something other than "working for people you owe money to?"

" the forcible recruitment of children for use in armed conflict;"

David likely opposes that for adults.

" the commercial sexual exploitation of children;"

Right, it's only the fact its illegal, in some places, that keeps everyone from selling their children as sex slaves. Look, I know how creepy this sounds, but
A) if you're so desparately poor that this is an economic necessity, am I really doing you a favor by telling you you can't?
B)If you're so depraved as to do it for the evilulz, would making it illegal deter you?

" the involvement of children in drug trafficking;"

No,

" and work that is likely to harm children's health, safety or morals."

So much for clearly defined, eh?

"Pretty much, "getting paid" has nothing to do with it. It's whether the child is in a constructive, nurturing and supportive environment or not."

Uh huh.

" A child working a 10-hour day on his family farm during a harvest is entirely different than one at the end of a whip in a coal mine."

What if there's no whip?

"Music lessons? School? Are you kidding me? Is it even possible that y'all are making such comparisons? "

Libertarians think about things dispassionately other people are just horrified to paralysis by. That's not the same thing as wrong, though.

MRS writes:

I hope I don't have to establish my conservative bonafides, and I love the Hoover Institution, but this is utter nonsense. I should hope the author will make distinctions between child labor and child slavery in the third world.

Biagio writes:

I think the point of child labor laws is not preventing a child from making money but preventing someone else making money out of a working child.

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