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There are 2 main narratives that I can see on child labor. One is that it is an unavoidable part of development and that children will tend to be employed in low skill, dirty, dangerous, demeaning jobs until a nation is rich enough to not need them in such jobs and then they will, instead, attend schools and work at later ages. The other narrative is that factory owners will always welcome cheap, malleable labor and that, left unprotected by protective laws, children would continuously be drawn into dirty, dangerous jobs.

There is some reason to believe in both scenarios. After all the UK and USA employed many children when they were developing and now don't use child labor at all. This speaks to the "capitalism makes child labor un-needed" argument. The counter argument is that without significant reforms (see http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Child_labor_laws_in_the_United_States) there is no way that factories would have stopped using convenient, cheap labor of children in the lowest end jobs --certainly not that quickly.

What do you say on this topic? Is the Objectivist approach to go laissez-faire and trust that everyone will clearly see that children are less efficient and therefore stop employing them without any government intervention. While I'd like to believe this, given that nowhere on Earth seems to run a laissez faire economy makes me worry about whether such an approach is realistic. The other piece of data is that even places that have been relatively laissez faire (e.g. Hong Kong) have problems with child labor. What's the proper approach to this ?

Edited to add the exploitative adjective to the question since I am not asking about useful training and summer jobs.

asked May 30 '12 at 11:20

Danneskjold_repo's gravatar image


edited May 31 '12 at 11:55

In Atlas Shrugged, Francisco voluntarily got a job with Taggart Transcontinental when he was in his early teens. Dagny also worked when she was young. In The Fountainhead, Howard Roark worked in construction when he was still a kid. In Rand's eyes, the government should not tell an individual how much he can work depending on his age. Also, if a corporation was exploiting little, innocent children, I would not buy their products or request their services. I doubt you would, either.

(May 30 '12 at 11:59) Collin1 Collin1's gravatar image

I don't think your question necessarily deals with child exploitation. I think it has to do with government oversight in the free market. Obviously, the answer involves the fact that the unscrupulous businessmen, such as Bernie Madoff, for example, will not succeed because they are not wanted. People will not support them, which only reinforces the idea of the impotence of evil. If you bought the product from the company that exploits kids, you're letting evil win by default. It is the responsibility of the consumer to make the right decisions when he spends money.

(May 30 '12 at 12:04) Collin1 Collin1's gravatar image

I understand that you would not buy the products of child labor but many, many people are completely oblivious to it and simply look at price tags. The Objectivist position, while understandable appears to be so hands-off that injustice could be done over many years until the perfect, enlightened society that voluntarily eschewed the products of child labor emerged (if ever). My question is a practical one about how best to deal with social evils like child labor.

(May 30 '12 at 20:16) Danneskjold_repo Danneskjold_repo's gravatar image

Do you consider children working on farms as being "good" and children working in factories as being "evil"?

(May 30 '12 at 22:16) Humbug Humbug's gravatar image

No I do not and I amended my question to focus on labor that is exploitative of children versus labor like doing farm chores or a summer job at a pizza store. If a job is very dirty, demeaning or dangerous, then having a 9 year old do it could (and I emphasize could) be considered exploitative of the 9 year old.

(May 31 '12 at 11:59) Danneskjold_repo Danneskjold_repo's gravatar image

There is nothing forcing the 9-year-old to stay there.

(May 31 '12 at 12:30) Collin1 Collin1's gravatar image

Just to clarify: if the kid's parents agree that the 9 year old is fine to go down a mine and work all day helping miners down there, you say that's OK given that no one forced the kid to work.

(May 31 '12 at 14:18) Danneskjold_repo Danneskjold_repo's gravatar image

If I may reiterate Humbug's question in a different form, are the parents doing it because the whole family is starving and the mine work pays a small fortune? Or are the parents doing it because they are diabolic evil-mongers who don't need the money and just want to see their own kids suffer?

(May 31 '12 at 15:32) Ideas for Life ♦ Ideas%20for%20Life's gravatar image

They are doing it because they live in a poor part of the country where there are few employment opportunities and this is a way that they can live a little bit better materially (they are not starving) than they otherwise would. They are making a tactically wise (more money tomorrow) but strategically unsound (less educated child plus the possibility of injury) decision. Think of it as a latter day Dickensian scenario.

(May 31 '12 at 15:53) Danneskjold_repo Danneskjold_repo's gravatar image

What does it mean to exploit children? The dictionary says that exploit means "to use selfishly for one's own ends".

What's wrong with exploiting children?

(Jun 03 '12 at 08:25) anthony anthony's gravatar image

It depends on the definition of "selfish". If you use the common dictionary definition, there is a sense that being "selfish" is being a guy that greedily grabs every nice piece of food on the table, a guy that won't shut up about himself yet cannot stand to listen to you, a guy that couldn't care less about his own kids as long as he has his beer and TV... In that sense, using a kid for "selfish" ends is not something I'd advocate. I would also think about the word "use". I am not sure I would advocate "using" people as a long, term healthy thing since it has an abusive connotation.

(Jun 03 '12 at 10:16) Danneskjold_repo Danneskjold_repo's gravatar image
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The text of the question cites a Wikipedia article, "Child labor laws in the United States," as a reference for "reforms" outlawing or limiting child labor. For a broader overview of child labor in general, worldwide and throughout history, there is another Wikipedia article titled simply, "Child labour," that seems to do a fairly good job. In reading it, one can't help but feel a deep sadness for the many children who have suffered so much, when, by present-day U.S. standards, they should have been in school learning the subjects that can enable them to function productively and prosperously in their adult lives, as well as being far happier children.

Did child labor have anything to do with industrialization? Did industrialization cause it or at least make it worse? Given the connection between the Industrial Revolution and capitalism, it was natural that the topic of child labor would come up early in the history of Objectivism (1962). An excellent article on exactly that topic appears in Ayn Rand's book, Capitalism: The Unknown Ideal (CUI), Chapter 8. It is titled, "The Effects of the Industrial Revolution on Women and Children," and is devoted for the first half to "Child Labor and the Industrial Revolution" (pp. 110-113 in my Signet paperback edition). The article is primarily a historical discussion, not an abstract theoretical philosophical or economic discussion. (It wasn't written by Ayn Rand but was published by her under her editorial direction and approval.)

That article, like the Wikipedia article, graphically describes the abysmal condition of laboring children, but also points out that such conditions existed long before the Industrial Revolution and, in fact, were improved greatly by the opportunities that industrialization brought about. The article begins:

The least understood and most widely misrepresented aspect of the history of capitalism is child labor.

One cannot evaluate the phenomenon of child labor in England during the Industrial Revolution of the late eighteenth and early nineteenth century, unless one realizes that the introduction of the factory system offered a livelihood, a means of survival, to tens of thousands of children who would not have lived to be youths in the pre-capitalistic eras.

The factory system led to a rise in the general standard of living, to rapidly falling urban death rates and decreasing infant mortality -- and produced an unprecedented population explosion.

The article cites specific population figures from 1750 to 1829 as evidence of the rising population and the rising life expectancy of so many who otherwise would not have survived at all. The article continues:

[These facts] give the lie to the claims of socialist and fascist critics of capitalism that the conditions of the laboring classes were progressively deteriorating during the Industrial Revolution.

One is both morally unjust and ignorant of history if one blames capitalism for the condition of children during the Industrial Revolution, since, in fact, capitalism brought an enormous improvement over their condition in the preceding age.

The article cites intellectuals like Dickens, Mrs. Browning, Southey, Engels and Marx as painting a false picture of "a lost 'golden age' of the working classes which, allegedly, was destroyed by the Industrial Revolution." A report by John Locke is cited showing what conditions were really like before the Industrial Revolution, and a vivid excerpt from Professor Ludwig von Mises explains that families were literally starving. "Their only refuge was the factory. It saved them, in the strict sense of the term, from death by starvation." And they went voluntarily. "The factory owners did not have the power to compel anybody to take a factory job. They could only hire people who were ready to work for the wages offered to them."

The CUI article also notes that the work in the factories "was often quite easy -- usually just attending a spinning or weaving machine and retying threads when they broke." The article surveys the rise of child labor laws in England from 1788 (regarding chimney sweeps, not factory workers) through 1846, and the very harmful effect that the later laws had on factory employment opportunites, loss of factory jobs for children, and the consequent return of children to the far worse conditions they had faced before the factories arose. The article concludes:

Child labor was not ended by legislative fiat; child labor ended when it became economically unnecessary for children to earn wages in order to survive -- when the income of their parents became sufficient to support them.... [T]he Industrial Revolution and its consequent prosperity were the achievement of capitalism and cannot be achieved under any other politico-economic system.

As an alternative system, the article mentions "Soviet Russia which combines industrialization -- and famine." I.e., it is the system that leads to prosperity, not just industrialization in the face of tyranny (a combination made possible only by aid from the West).

The preceding chapter in CUI, "Notes on the History of American Free Enterprise" (by Ayn Rand), discusses the history of railroads in the U.S. The opening sentences of that article could just as well be the concluding remarks for the discussion of children and women in Chapter 8:

If a detailed, factual study were made of all those instances in the history of American industry which have been used by the statists as an indictment of free enterprise and as an argument in favor of a government-controlled economy, it would be found that the actions blamed on businessmen were caused, necessitated, and made possible only by government intervention in business. The evils popularly ascribed to big industrialists were not the result of an unregulated industry, but of government power over industry.

Chapter 7 then goes on to explain how it worked out in the case of railroads.

answered Jun 02 '12 at 02:07

Ideas%20for%20Life's gravatar image

Ideas for Life ♦

The 2nd narrative is addressed by the first: once it is not necessary for survival, children will not need to go to work in "dirty dangerous factories". It matters not that factories may always be willing to hire them, as it is up to their parents to determine whether or not it is necessary to have their children take such jobs, i.e. whether the job is a net benefit or net negative for their family's needs and values. The problem solves itself when a market is free and personal responsibility allowed to operate.

And let's "clean up" that 2nd narrative a bit too, with the progress your narratives propose, the factories will become cleaner, safer and more desirable places to work, but eventually be taken over by robots leaving today's brilliant children to the computer and technology careers that are now their future!

answered Jun 02 '12 at 12:37

la_phil's gravatar image

la_phil ♦

There is a common package deal that always seems to come up when child labor is discussed---people fail to differentiate between (1) children merely working, and (2) employers' violations of working children's rights.

Those hostile to "child labor" often assume that children laboring is ipso facto wrong. They will often recite genuinely horrible treatment of child laborers---actual rights violations---as evidence for their position (for example, chaining children to their machines, beating the children, obtaining contracts through fraud or duress, or simple negligence (which is a rights violation) see the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory disaster). But then, rather than decrying rights violations and that small minority of unscrupulous business people who irrationally engage in them, the opponents of child labor turn around and say all child labor is bad. Their evidence obviously does not support their proposition. Some child labor, indeed most child labor, violates no rights whatsoever. What the opponents really are against is children merely working as such; they are just using the rights violating examples as part of a package deal to suck otherwise well-disposed people unwittingly into their anti-child labor camp.

However, sometimes proponents of child labor, in trying to disentangle the package deal, make the mistake of either denying or underplaying the real rights violations that historically occurred sometimes against child laborers. This makes the pro-child labor position lose credibility. It is completely correct to point out that child labor as such does not entail rights violations, and that child labor is perfectly legitimate and moral in general. But we must always be careful to reiterate that any actual rights violations against child laborers (or any other person for that matter)---and there have historically been some---are the purview of the government.

Furthermore, not all legislation on this matter would be completely inappropriate, contrary to what many libertarians and some objectivsts I know might think. Outright ban? Completely wrong. Economic regulations? Also wrong. But I see no problem with taking heightened precautions with regard to children, because they are in an obviously different situation than the average person. Thus, laws that, for example, scrutinized child labor contracts more closely than regular contracts would be acceptable---children are not fully rational, and the possibility of fraud, mistake, or duress is more substantial (actually most states allow children to completely disavow contracts, so this point would be moot; but assuming the contract is not disavowed). Or, for example, laws that required parental consent be given before a child under a given age can work.

answered Jun 09 '12 at 07:45

ericmaughan43's gravatar image

ericmaughan43 ♦

edited Jun 09 '12 at 07:50

As usual a clear and helpful answer. Thanks Eric.

(Jun 10 '12 at 10:24) Danneskjold_repo Danneskjold_repo's gravatar image

I don't quite see what your legislation example adds to the current state of laws. We already have age of majority and age of license laws that govern when a person can legally enter into a contract. Part of that decision process is to consider when the person is capable of making such decisions, so by definition "additional" scrutiny is not required as capability is factored into the age set. And "added scrutiny" is not a law by a process for applying a law that would be impractical to implement. Therefore as far as minors are concerned, parental consent is already required.

(Jun 10 '12 at 16:21) la_phil ♦ la_phil's gravatar image

It might not add anything to the current state of the law--that was not its purpose. It was an observation that not every law touching on child labor--directly or indirectly--is ipso facto illegitimate. Furthermore, the general laws regarding children and contracts are set against the backdrop of current child labor laws. If child labor were not forbidden, then perhaps changes to contract law would be required as well. In making such revisions, however, special accommodation of children's peculiar situation could be made.

(Jun 10 '12 at 18:31) ericmaughan43 ♦ ericmaughan43's gravatar image

As for heightened scrutiny of child labor contracts--procedural laws are still laws. Such laws are not "impractical to implement". Obviously any actual law would require more specific details than I gave. I merely referred to a general idea. After all, the point of the answer was not to propose specific laws in a form ready to be implemented. If the general idea is too vague for your liking, then let me give you a more narrow example:

A canon of construction could be implemented that in a child labor contract ambiguities are construed against the employer.

(Jun 10 '12 at 18:41) ericmaughan43 ♦ ericmaughan43's gravatar image
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Asked: May 30 '12 at 11:20

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Last updated: Jun 10 '12 at 18:42