In Defense of Child Labor

Just the other day, hard-eyed federal cops descended on young lawbreakers all across America. Their crime wasn’t drugs or gang warfare or even shoplifting. It was work.

Given the number of bums infesting our cities, one might assume a Republican administration would not attack work. One would be wrong.

Labor Secretary Elizabeth Dole – wife of Senator Bob (R-IRS) – is a pal of big labor, an institution which really ought to be called big anti-labor. Unions use violence and government- granted privileges to get more money for less work. As part of this effort, they seek to outlaw the competition – newer people who might work harder or for market wages.

At the behest of Mrs. Dole and the unions, President Bush and Congress raised the minimum wage. This abolished entry-level jobs suitable for kids ill-educated in the government schools. Now Mrs. Dole, with White House support, is usurping parental rights with a union-inspired attack on “child labor.” Like the minimum wage increase, it does great harm.

After her Labor police investigated and fined a legion of businesses in Operation Child Watch, Mrs. Dole said: “I want to deliver a clear message to employers, parents, and youth. The cop is on the beat.”

Some cop. These 14 and 15-year-old kids hold part-time jobs because they need the money, but it’s illegal for them to work more than three hours a day, later than 7:00 pm, or more than 18 hours a week. Thus if a teenage busboy works three and a half hours, or until 7:15prn, he’s guilty, and his boss can be fined $100,000 and sentenced to six months in prison.

What’s wrong with hard work? And why should the federal government, not exactly an expert in hard work, stick its nose in? The Constitution doesn’t appoint Mrs. Dole as Big Mother.

Can a youngster work too many hours? Sure, just as he can play too many hours. But in a free and decent society, decisions about these matters are for parents, not bureaucrats. Mrs. Dole not only violates the free market, she usurps the authority of fathers and mothers.

How dare she close off these kids’ opportunities? A teenager’s job is not only gainful, it’s a school for life. And it is the most important school many kids attend. The government wants to kick them out.

This is made easier by what Ludwig von Mises identified as the “anti-capitalistic mentality” of politicians and intellectuals, and the long history of socialist propaganda on this subject.

Youth labor is the “most widely misrepresented aspect of the history of capitalism,” says Robert Hessen of the Hoover Institution.

We’re told that capitalism put young people to work in the English factories of the 1700s and 1800s that were little better than concentration camps. As usual, the left has got it exactly backwards.

In 1697, before the Industrial Revolution, John Locke urged families to put their children to work at age three. Otherwise, they would have only “bread and water, and that very scantily too.” And many would not have even that.

By 1830, the life expectancy of children had vastly increased, thanks to the most explosive growth in living standards in history. Before capitalism, “these children were destitute,” said Mises. “Their only refuge was the factory,” which “saved them from death by starvation.”

The work was hard, as life was hard, but it was not abusive. The real maltreatment took place in the English welfare system. The government placed orphaned and deserted children in horrendous establishments.

When youth factory work was restricted by an unholy combination of upper-class bleeding hearts and socialists, it was the kids who suffered. Since they had to live, and since they would do anything to avoid the social workers, the youngsters were forced to look for usually lower-paying and more dangerous work in the countryside. Many ended up, says Mises, “vagabonds, beggars, tramps, robbers, and prostitutes.”

Youth labor was not abolished by Parliament, says Hessen, any more than it could be legislatively eliminated today in Bangladesh or Ghana. Only when “the income of parents became sufficient to support them” did it cease. The “emancipators and benefactors for these children” were “manufacturers and financiers,” not politicians.

Twice during the Progressive Era (the regressive era that gave us the Federal Reserve, the income tax, and World War I), Congress tried to restrict youth work, but both times it was stymied by a Supreme Court that followed the Constitution.

Liberals and unions proposed a constitutional amendment to ban child labor; but it too failed. Only Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal, which subverted the Supreme Court and exalted unions, could have enacted the union-inspired Walsh-Healey Act of 1936, ordering government contractors to fire young people, cut working hours, and pay above-market union wages. The so-called Fair Labor Standards Act of 1938 extended these principles to the whole economy, and gave us the first minimum wage.

Northeastern Congressmen saw the legislation as a way to attack the lower-cost, non-union Southern states. A conservative Republican-Southern Democrat alliance tried to stop the laws, but unfortunately to no avail. Anti-market legislation is always harmful, but these laws threw people out of work during the Great Depression.

The power of Labor unions has faded since those dark days, and few people (outside of university economics departments) believe in Marxist exploitation theories anymore, but we are still saddled with anti-work laws that stunt young people’s lives.

Instead of harassing small businesses, I have a better idea. Let’s raid the Department of Labor and toss the slothocracy out on the street. Maybe they can get some real jobs in fast-food restaurants. . . as long as they’re willing to compete with America’s young people newly enfranchised by the repeal of all child-labor laws.