Child Labor Hypocrisy

School seems useful for basic training and for socializing folks into industrial workplaces. But how much schooling do we need – closer to eight or to sixteen years? You might think the more school option has clearly proven its superiority by now. But it wasn’t exactly a fair fight – we forbade kids to work, and then required them to school.

Watching some young girls sitting for hours in front of a grocery store selling girl scout cookies recently, I wondered, “Why isn’t this child labor?” People often talk as they feel revulsion at the image of a miserable child, working at some hard tedious job, and so they are glad child labor laws prohibit such cruel scenarios. But in fact our society is full of kids working away at hard and/or tedious jobs.

Kids work hard at school, housework, sports, practicing music, supporting clubs, etc. and none of this cruelty is prevented by “child labor” laws. Such laws only prevent getting paid to work; they don’t even stop kids interning for free. If child labor laws come from our revulsion at miserable kids, why are there no laws preventing tiger moms from making their kids practice music for hours straight without a bathroom break, or against parents who make their older kids work full time taking care of younger kids? If job safety is our worry, why not just regulate that more directly?

The history of child labor law is closely associated with unions seeking less competition for adult labor. Like minimum lot sizes for houses, child labor laws also helped to keep out poor folks. And today self-righteous indication about foreign child labor supports protectionism, to keep out foreign products that compete with local firms. Alas, keeping poor kids from working for money not only unfairly biases the work vs. school competition, it needlessly impoverishes poor kids and their families.

While we claim to care so so much about kids forced to do hard and tedious tasks, we only actually prevent doing such tasks for money – many kids around us end up doing such tasks anyway, just not for money, and we hardly care. And yet somehow we’ve used all this to tell ourselves how morally superior we are to the cruel poor folk who might even consider having their kids “work.” Hypocrisy can be amazingly shallow.

Added 9a: Art Carden argues similarly.

Added 6Apr: I devote a whole post to responding to comments.

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