Child labor, despite what you might have heard, was not created by capitalism. It’s a practice that stretches back to pre-history, when children would help in hunting and gathering as soon as they were able to walk.
Why were most children made to work before the 20th century? Is it because parents were sadistic and governments cruel? Hardly. It’s because, before capitalism made us rich, children had to work if they were to survive at all. When a family lives on the equivalent of a dollar a day, there is no alternative: if you can work, you work—or you starve.
What eliminates child labor is not government decree but a rising standard of living. That’s what eliminated it in the West during the 19th century and that is what is eliminating it today in places like China. As parents grow richer, one of the first things they do is use their burgeoning incomes to send their children to school.
This is not solely an issue of parental benevolence. The fact is, children are not very productive in a modern society. They lack the skills, knowledge, and attention span needed to perform important tasks. Once industrial capitalism began to advance beyond simple machines, there wasn’t a whole lot children could do.
If capitalism is what caused the West to grow rich, then it was capitalism, not government intervention, that eliminated child labor in the developed world.
This is not to deny that governments have limited or forbidden child labor by law. But child labor was going away on its own, and the laws were far from benign. By pushing children out of the newer, more visible factories where these laws were easier to enforce, hungry children were forced to seek work at smaller, older, more dangerous factories—or, as Ludwig von Mises notes, to “infest the country as vagabonds, beggars, tramps, robbers, and prostitutes.”
Today, child labor laws are harmful for a different reason: they prevent children from doing work they would enjoy and benefit from. While no one wants to see a kid sit in a factory or trudge around a farm for 16 hours (assuming there is any viable alternative), some form of productive work can be a tremendous value to a child. It gives him a chance to earn some money, to learn some valuable skills, to feel grown up, and to build character and self-esteem. In America today, child labor laws don’t keep eleven-year-old Cody out of a hazardous factory—they force him to spend his summer playing Nintendo rather than washing dishes or fixing bicycles. That’s hardly something to celebrate.
For more see:
- “The Effects of the Industrial Revolution on Women and Children,” by Robert Hessen, in Ayn Rand’s Capitalism: The Unknown Ideal.
- Child Labor During the British Industrial Revolution by Carolyn Tuttle.
- Child Labor and the British Industrial Revolution by Lawrence W. Reed.