Ron Paul and Child Labor

“It’s Capitalism that eliminated child labor” – Ron Paul (google: at 5:53pm, via reader Alexia’s comment).

One might be tempted to say “Actually, that was FDR with the Fair Labor Standards Act“.  But I decided to look a bit deeper and see if Ron had taken a dive off the deep end, or was saying something worthwhile.  First, I checked out two sources who differ ever so slightly in their political dogma.  Freedom Daily, which writes:

So it is that child labor was relieved of its worst attributes not by legislative fiat but by the progressive march of an ever more productive, capitalist system. Child labor was virtually eliminated when, for the first time in history, the productivity of parents in free labor markets rose to the point that it was no longer economically necessary for children to work in order to survive. The emancipators and benefactors of children were not legislators or factory inspectors but factory owners and financiers. Their efforts and investments in machinery led to a rise in real wages, to a growing abundance of goods at lower prices, and to an incomparable improvement in the general standard of living.

Interesting.  But this yields a state where child labor is only “virtually eliminated”.  After all, not everyone gets those higher jobs.  We still don’t have a living wage, hell, we can’t even get a raise in the minimum wage.  Let’s see what the socialists have to say (Socialist Labor Party):

All in all, the Fortune article paints a sordid picture of children across the country being victimized by unscrupulous employers who violate existing child labor laws with impunity. In 1992 the U.S. Department of Labor recorded 19,443 such violations, “about twice the 1980 level.” Moreover, there is little reason to doubt that for every such recorded violation, there are many more that go unrecorded or are simply overlooked. As the article notes, “Child labor laws…are rarely enforced.” That squares with the historic record, and there is every reason to expect that such will continue to be the case.

Suggesting that the laws in place are not sufficiently enforced.  Which would suggest it was not capitalism or FDR, but rather no one has eliminated child labor.

The fundamental split is whether we can eliminate child labor through regulation, or trusting in the flux of the free market to take care of things.  I think in both cases there is bound to be a fringe of the unprotected.  Neither laws nor market conditions will protect every child from exploitation.  However if one considers the benefits of each approach, one does come out on top.  Whatever may be said for letting the free market run wild, in the case of child labor a lack of regulation does not produce clear benefits for industry that outweigh the risk to children.  I don’t see how it could.  Regulation itself, not as an abstract but in the practical application of child labor laws, provides a means to actively prevent and handle cases of child labor in violation of the law.  It also has three significant advantages over the free market approach:

  1. Enforcement can close the protection gap to a degree beyond what market conditions alone could ever yield.
  2. Fostering correct market conditions can happen in harmony with government regulation of labor conditions.
  3. There is recourse for those who fall through the cracks.  If there is a law, then there are consequences for violating that law.  So the children and families who are exploited in violation of the law have some means of fighting back above and beyond whatever meager approach the free market alone affords them.

Ron Paul’s statement on child labor was way off.  It has not yet been eliminated.  The biggest steps towards its elimination have arguably been both market and regulatory forces.  But to ascribe child labor’s defeat to Capitalism misses the contribution of FDR entirely.  It also redirects us from the most promising solution to the exploitative child labor that exists even today: strong laws that are enforced.


13 Responses

  1. I think the point here is that the generation of wealth and fostering of a middle class removes the need for child labor? After all, the reasons children were put to work wasn’t because their labor was cheap (that’s what ALLOWED them to find work) but instead because of the economic hardships their parents endured? Isn’t that the fundamental underlying cause?

    If so, then any amount of regulation or laws are simply band aids which do not assess the fundamental problem. It’s not wealthy middle class parents putting their kids to work. It’s poor, uneducated parents trying to increase the family income.

    So while you may be correct in saying legislation put the nail in the coffin, the legislation would not have been realistic had not a capitalist economy removed the necessity in the first place.

  2. If I remember my Constitutional Law, and I do, it was the “free markets” corporate goons who fought tooth and nail against the imposition of federal labor laws and it was not until FDR put pressure on the Supreme Court (the “change in time that saved the nine”) that these laws entered the books. After all, corporations are always looking out for the bottom line, and it child labor is good for that line, they will use it, morality and social trends be damned.

  3. history seldom tells the whole story, but i think you nailed this one. Labor unions played a part, and you can bet corporations put child labor to bed under duress.

    informative post

  4. Zack,
    There is a question of need vs benefit at play here. The individual families that make it into the middle class may not have a need, but employers may still find a benefit (as Rafael notes). In fact, with a shrinking middle class, and a large underclass, this suggests that child labor, if left to the market, would be even more widespread today.
    Underlying issues are what we should be tackling, but in the meantime those band-aids are stopping a lot of blood.
    Right On.

  5. Criminyjicket,
    Thanks. In fact this site suggests working with labor unions to improve the lots for workers in general as a way to keep up the pressure and move companies towards better working conditions. Labor unions no doubt played a huge role.

  6. i can hunt around and find you the links, but there were quite literally bloodbaths when corporations sent thugs in to bust up union organizers. To say the free market sent child labor packing is a fair stretch.

  7. I agree with poster #1. Children do not belong to big business. They belong to the parents, who were sending to work. When the family didn’t need the money, they quit sending them to work.

    Also sort of agree with #4, because if we’re being rediced to serfdom, we have bigger problems that need addressed.

    Laws might make people feel good, but they rarely have much of an effect on social issues.

    And of course, these laws should be decided by local governments, not the Feds. Hiring young teens to detassle corn in the late summer isn’t the same as hiring yong teens to work 16 hour days sewing shirts, but the feds tend to treat those jobs as equally apalling.

    Government works best when it’s small.

  8. criminyjicket,
    Good point. I’d love to see those links.
    Then as soon as we have families who all have enough money, there will be no need for child labor. But I don’t think that reasoning holds. You’d have situations where the children were kept in dormitories, separate from their families. Who regulates companies and ensures parents know what conditions their children work under? Even 4 hours a week can be exploitation under certain working conditions.
    The shrinking middle class and our role in society is a larger problem to address.
    I have never heard laws described as things that “make people feel good”. Laws can have plenty of effect on social issues. Take the number of lynchings and burning crosses, for example. Or the right to have an abortion. Or voting rights for women. Or laws protecting freedom of speech.
    Why should they be decided by local governments? Why should my freedom of speech apply in Massachusetts, but not in South Carolina? Why should I be able to buy liquor on sunday in Virginia, but not in New Hampshire? If there is a problem with how the feds treat vastly different jobs, then the law needs to change. This problem would be the same no matter which level of government it was applied at.

    Government works best when it reflects the will of the people. Big or small.

  9. Rafael –

    If I had a time machine to go back and somehow stop that crap, and reinstate Lochner, and make the Supreme Court not suck, I would surely do it. Every single ill that plagues our nation stems from these horrible failures of the 20s and 30s.

    Heck, I guess I could just clone Clarence Thomas 8 more times and put ’em on the Court, and achieve the same result. How good things would be, I cannot even imagine.

    It is sad. I loathed con law, it was depressing.

  10. That’s a good line, government works best when it reflects the will of the people. It’s really good, in fact. Because it also implicitly provides that local government, composed of a more homogenous community, will ALWAYS represent the will of the people MORE than a National government.

    Good stuff, man. Keep it up! 😉

  11. Since the early part of the 20th century, the average household size in America has went from over 4 to about 2.5. A primary cause for this trend has been the move from an agrerian society (farming) economy to what we have today. Frankly, you needed a large family to work the farm. Sunrise to sundown of hard labor. Now, are we morally opposed to that? The labor was obviously in exchange for room and board. It was a necessity for the survival of the family.

    Would a social movement to “ban” this sort of child labor have been a good thing for anyone? Of course not. So let’s be intellectually honest and not pretend that “child labor” is inherintly immoral and wrong without considering the circumstances that surround it.

    The point of this is that some forms of social regulation are not possible in certain situations, no matter how badily we percieve the ill to be. Keeping 10 year olds from (essentially) forced labor on Dad’s farm is noble, but it might also collapse an economy.

    It is my opinion that social ills are best solved through the generation of technological advancements which lead to healthier and wealthier societies. The reduction in a demand for child labor is directly attributable to this in my opinion. Primarily due to life expectancy increases.

    In mideival england, life expectancy was about 33 yrs old. Marrying off daughters at 12 or 13 to start having chidren was a logical extension of this. Infant mortality rates were incredibly high, and mothers died frequently during childbirth.

    Laws concerning age of consent and such are not practical at this point. Those laws (regulations) ONLY become practical once a society has evolved such that the needs are minimized. Applying a band-aid here only causes bleeding somewhere else. In this case, maybe population shrinks, reducing revenues, forcing government to abandon public health causes, further reducing life expectancy, etc. It’s ony once the underlying cause has been sufficiently addressed that the band-aid stops the trickle of blood that remains.

    So give the government credit for ending the legal practices of child labor. Likewise, give them credit for ending the legality of marrying off your 12 year old daughter. But it was technological progress (namely public health/sanitation) and wealth generation that made these laws even possible. This is not a chicken/egg argument – this is cause and effect. One clearly precedes the other. The more condusive a system is to advancing technology, the faster we solve our social problems.

  12. If we have 20,000 violation now, and the anti-child labor article says that the norm is a very low level of enforcement, how can you then side with lawmaking as the effective solution?

    Is it better to have a child working or a child starving? It seems like having higher paid jobs with a higher requisite of skill is what will remove child labor because there will be fewer jobs they can do, and their parents won’t need to send them. Prostitution is illegal, drugs are illegal, speeding is illegal, child labor can’t be removed superficially.

  13. 10. bret,
    Stretching it way too thin there.
    Local government can better represent people.
    I’d say simply given population size, it is more likely.
    But it is not a given.

    But who says I don’t like small government?
    I just think for some things (rights) it should be large,
    for others (road planning) it should be small.

    11. Zack
    Helping out part time on the family farm is one thing.
    Putting small children to work instead of sending them to school,
    or working them so hard that they cannot compete with their peers
    is not fair or healthy for a society.

    If our economy depends on child labor, then we have some pretty large

    I think you make a good point though with regards to the mix
    of progress and government symbiotically giving rise to the current
    soup of laws and rights we have today. But your closing sentence is
    too simplistic. Conducive to advancing technology is very good,
    but not at the price of people. If we have to slow down, then fine,
    but to go too fast with no regard for safety causes dangerous hiccups in the health and stability of society. Yes driving down the interstate is how to get to the beach, but if we go 120mph, we increase the risk of crashing.
    Nothing wrong with doing 5 over the speed limit.

    12. Daniel,

    If we have 20,000 violation now, and the anti-child labor article says that the norm is a very low level of enforcement, how can you then side with lawmaking as the effective solution?

    That is like saying because we have crime, laws don’t make sense.

    Is it better to have a child working or a child starving?

    Neither, and you know this. That is a false choice, and not one a responsible society forces itself to make.

    While you make a good point in that laws can’t completely remove certain acts, they can reduce them and provide recourse for the people hurt.
    People still steal, still murder, still rape. Yet we have laws against this. Those laws aren’t going anywhere, and I’d argue they do have some effect. At the very least, they provide some way to protect future victims from known criminals.

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