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Thursday, September 2, 2004

Child Labor Laws

No doubt you learned from your government school text book that unions pushed to pass labor laws in the early twentieth century to stop the exploitation of children by greedy industrialists, who paid children low wages to work long hours in unsafe sweatshops. These laws made it illegal to employ pre-teens and young teens is factories.

Now think for a minute. Surely you suspected something wrong with the story you were being told. If conditions were so harsh, why couldn’t these young people just quit their jobs. Who was forcing those poor hapless children to slave in these sweat shops? Was it their parents? If so, then are we to believe that union leaders care more about children than parents do? And how can you help young workers by taking away their jobs?

See what I mean? Something is wrong with this government school text book story.

The real story is quite different. Children originally left the farms to work in harsh factory conditions because it was a matter of survival for them and their families. Since child labor competes with unionized labor, unions have long sought to use the power of the state to deprive younger workers of the right to work. Union workers wanted those factory jobs for themselves.

As a side note, union-backed legislation prohibiting child labor came after the decline in child labor had already begun in America. The reason for the decline was that capital investment and subsequent productivity improvements meant that more people were lifted from poverty and could afford to keep their children at home and in school.

In the Third World today, where poverty is still the norm, the alternative to "child labor" is all too often begging, prostitution, crime, or starvation. Today’s Unions absurdly proclaim to be taking the moral high road by advocating protectionist policies that inevitably lead to these consequences.

It often happens that social legislation inadvertently harms the very people it claims to help. In the case of child labor laws, the harm was (and is) intentional.

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Portions taken from related article “Markets, Not Unions, Gave us Leisure” By Thomas J. DiLorenzo, 8/24/04, at http://www.mises.org/

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