As time has gone by and as I have reviewed my life in light of later experiences, I have grown increasingly sceptical to school (not learning, mind you, but specifically school). Among the observations I have made:

o School carries an immense opportunity cost for both the individual students and society as a whole. Indeed, in my own case, I would even have learned more (nevermind had more fun or more time for other interests) without school, because school took time away from my private reading and thinking.

o Most time spent in school is eventually wasted, due to reasons like inefficient teaching methods, attempted one-size-fits-everyone teaching, and a misfocus on data over knowledge and knowledge over understanding. (I stress that I mean true understanding, not the kind of hogwash ``understanding'' I have seen in some examples of e.g. modern math education.)

o A very sizeable portion of the population is over-schooled compared to what they need later in life, themselves want, and (sometimes) are able to at all handle. Notably, the idea that more schooling automatically makes someone a correspondingly better thinker, better able to handle his life, whatnot, appears to be a great misconception, with inborn intelligence having a far greater impact (including indirect roads like ability and interest in learning).

o School is in many ways a protected environment that delays the students maturity (in at least some areas) by not exposing them to many ``real-life'' experiences. I am currently leaning towards the idea that earlier actual working experiences would be beneficial to most children. (I stress that I am not talking about 8 y.o. chimney sweapers, but teenagers doing ordinary work on an entry-level.)

Expand full comment

Let me add to my explanation. I think that Robin assumes that the economy is in some sort of Pareto optimum such that to improve things there needs to be more labor added to the economy and not just redistribution. Under that scenario, adding the labor of children would provide a net benefit to the economy.

The example I used of health insurance companies demonstrates that the economy is not in any sort of Pareto optimum. Adding administrative workers to the health insurance company increases their ability to dump clients who will cost them profit. There is no net gain of welfare in the economy, there is a net loss. Health insurance premiums are used for administration to increase health insurance industry profits, not to provide health care. The cost of health care of the people who are dumped is either paid by someone else, or by the person with lower health.

Much of the current problem with the economy is in the inefficiency of labor utilization. Many people are underemployed. There are the unemployed, but there are also those who are working at jobs that they are overqualified for, they could be doing something that is more difficult that would provide a greater benefit, but they can't because of inefficiencies in labor utilization. There are also those who are overemployed, those doing things for which they are not qualified and which they screw up and cause damage and net loss to the economy. The people buying and selling CDSs who tanked the economy come to mind.

Expand full comment

I think the purpose of the child labor laws is to prevent the exploitation of families. I left a comment with some links on the follow on thread. The links were about the practice of debt bondage where children's labor is used to settle debts. The net effect was to make the families worse off. What paid child labor does is reduce the subsistence wage of the family.

Expand full comment

I think you make a very good point about the desire that children attend school, but that would seem to be covered by the mandatory nature of education in the U.S. It is admittedly the case that once they turn 16 they can drop out, but that's also when the law allows them take some jobs. They also don't treat school-hours any differently, or make exceptions for the summer.

daedalus2u, I'm a bit confused by your comment. Do you think the laws are intended to prevent children from becoming health insurance actuaries or something? The jobs which inspired child-labor legislation in the past were undeniably productive work in any sense I'm aware of.

Expand full comment

You think this maps well to reality? Because I'm pretty doubtful.

Expand full comment

I think you are right. The fallacy that Robin is working on is that “work” accomplishes something “productive”, so if there is more “work”, then there will be more production and everyone is better off because there is more production that needs to be consumed.

Employers don't hire workers to be productive, they hire them to make profit. The only reason employers would hire children is because children would be cheaper than adults.

Some activities don't accomplish something productive, they just transfer cost from one individual to another, but at some cost. For example health insurance companies spend their high administrative costs trying to figure out which of their customers will cost them money and then dump them. Nothing productive has been accomplished, health care still costs the same, just that now some people don't have any.

Health insurance companies may make a lot of profit, but they are not producing anything of value.

Expand full comment

Sadly educational efficiency is so bad that if I had the chance to redo high school (graduated last year) I would... Drop out, get a private tutor, and work a job while I took Community College classes, then transfer to decent school. Work up from there.

Honor classes are so full of busy work and meaningless assignments. 5+ hours of homework every day for years on end has only given me a head ache, and an increase in knowledge so marginal. . . I could probably read a couple well written blogs over the course of a few days and get more out of it.

Maybe I don't oppose children working (with their consent) mainly because our education system is so full of nonsense, I think a job that puts a few dollars in your pocket and rewards the time spent, isn't so bad when put next to how much time and effort will be wasted in public school.

Expand full comment

Hanson misses the point of child labor laws entirely. The laws are not designed to stop young people from having to do anything - to 'work' in that sense. Child labor laws are set up so that desperately poor families are not tempted and/or compelled to send their children to work full-time instead of going to school. If a factory has the choice between a parent for $15/hour or a child for $5/hour, most of them will hire the child, leaving the parent with no work. If child labor laws are enacted making it illegal for the child to work full-time, the factory will be forced to hire adults, even if they have to pay the higher wage. The parent will have a better chance of finding a job, and the child can be 'forced' to attend school so that they get an education. Even if we are being completely selfish, it is better for the rest of if the child gets an education because they will generate more wealth as an adult and raise the standard of living for our whole society.

I grew up under 'child labor laws.' They did not prevent me from selling lemonade on the neighborhood golf course, from pulling weeds for my grandmother for money, from selling greeting cards door-to-door, from setting fence posts for my mother, or from taking a part-time job stocking shelves at a hardware store while I was in high school. I was reimbursed for the school work that I did with a diploma and entrance to a university, rather than with money. I also did fund-raising for my Boy Scout troop, and I was 'paid' with free camping trips using equipment bought with the money I helped raise. There was nothing hypocritical behind the fact that at the age of 12, my parents weren't being tempted to pull me out of school by the offer of a 12-hour/day low wage factory job, and nothing hypocritical about the fact that factory owners were being forced against their will to pay much higher wages to hire adults.

Expand full comment

There is a big difference in children doing household work and working for money for someone else. While a lot of parents make their children do something they don't like, it is usually for the betterment of the children (e.g. learn French, play the piano, etc.). The fact that sometimes the parents misjudge the positive effects of the forced activities upon the children is another story. The important thing is the intention of the parents, and the stimulus of a parent to say "enough is enough" if the activity obviously is not to the child's benefit is a lot bigger than to someone, who employs the child for money - then he/she can just push the child to the limit and eventually replace the child with another. The employer is not interested in the personal development of the child in principle, only in so far as that can bring him/her profit.

Expand full comment

On a tangent -- aren't you going along with a game-rigging when you call the legislators "we"?

Expand full comment

Here is a pretty typical mtraven comment:

Stamp your feet and whine that a post that disagrees with your beliefs is "shallow".

Don't explain why. Just call out a childish insult.

Confuse Libertarianism and the "Right Wing".

Don't engage with the substance of the post. At all.

Expand full comment

mtraven, I don't know if your take is really all that different from Hanson's. He's pointing out that there's a lot of work kids do that we're fine with (as long as they aren't paid), and lots of perfectly safe/comfortable work they could do that we prohibit. His perspective is that child labor legislation is not about legislation, I don't know the extent to which you disagree. Shifting to a more safety/exploitation centric system (perhaps allowing work by default and prohibiting specific practices as they arise, which should in fairly short time grab most of the low hanging fruit) is one possibility that occurs to me, although it raises the question of why a legislature which did not use such criterion in the first place will proceed to be a reliable principal for an agent who wants such criterion.

Hanson has before discussed one-sided skepticism of certain funding sources but not others. He's been open before about things like his "status move checkllist", so I second mtraven's call for him to discuss how he perceives his or his peers funding affecting their work. Such matters may not be entirely relevant to much of the narrow-interest blog subject matter here, but it's something people care about that he has personal insight into.

I agree with Tom P on the principal agent problem, but my default assumption for most things is to let parents decide because while their shared genetic interests are not 100% with the child, they are certainly more than pretty much anyone else other than an identical twin. Why we should expect folks with less inherent incentive and local knowledge to make better decisions seems odd to me. In cases where we don't trust parents, I would like some way for the child to express its own interests or delegate authority to someone to do so in its stead (with the greater experience of age).

Expand full comment

When parents can gain financially from putting their children to work, they don't act as good agents for their children. There is a conflict of interest and the likely outcome is that children invest too little in skills.

Child labor laws probably go too far, but there are still some good arguments for them.

Expand full comment

Kiyosaki is bunk, and Machiavelli is not really useful (We want more entrepreneurs, not more public choice scholars). If you want to help children to become more entrepreneureal, see Cameron Herold's work as related e.g. in this TED talk. His website is Back Pocket COO

Expand full comment

'Human rights organizations have documented child labor in USA. According to a 2009 petition by Human Rights Watch: "Hundreds of thousands of children are employed as farmworkers in the United States, often working 10 or more hours a day. They are often exposed to dangerous pesticides, experience high rates of injury, and suffer fatalities at five times the rate of other working youth. Their long hours contribute to alarming drop-out rates. Government statistics show that barely half ever finish high school. According to the National Safety Council, agriculture is the second most dangerous occupation in the United States. However, current US child labor laws allow child farmworkers to work longer hours, at younger ages, and under more hazardous conditions than other working youths. While children in other sectors must be 14 to be employed and cannot work more than 3 hours on a school day, in agriculture children can work at age 12 for unlimited hours before and after school." [4] They would work two to three jobs depending on their age.'


Exploitation is an issue, today.

Should we allow child sex workers?

What world do you live in anyway?

Expand full comment

This post reminded me of a great Will Wikinson quote years ago:

"I am constantly dumbstruck that so many who profess to care about “social justice” do little more than complain that desperate people have really terrible options and then work to take away the best options."

Expand full comment