Statists hate the free market. The idea of individuals engaging in voluntary exchange without coercion and force, and both walking away from the exchange as happy, is an affront to the statists deity of choice. The state. This is true even for statists that are statist by default simply because of their ignorance. All someone from a free-market perspective has to do is say the words “free” and “market” together in order to illicit a response from them. Usually it is a response well ingrained in their heads. It’s a response they learned in school and it’s the response given by the “experts” on television. The response is generally something like: “Yeah, the free market has its merits, but it can’t be trusted to regulate itself. We need government in order to make sure abuse and fraud do not occur.”
They then list of a litany of charges the free market has been accused of. From child labor to product safety, the arguments for a regulated economy are all over the place.
The free market gave us child labor and government regulations ended child labor.
Most free market advocates hear this line over and over. The person saying this argument usually talks about children during the industrial revolution. Sometimes they show off a picture of little boys covered in dirt working coal mines. They point to these images and say “look, this is what the free market gave us and government had to come in and regulate things so that kids wouldn’t have to work anymore.”
Lets first clear up the biggest problem with this argument. Child labor was not a new phenomenon once capitalism started to take hold. Children have always worked since the dawn of time. Children worked because the family units needed them to. The division of labor was not yet fully developed and homes were either self sufficient or were part of a community that was self sufficient. “Originally confined to the narrowest circles of people, to immediate neighbors, the division of labor gradually becomes more general until eventually it includes all of mankind.”1 So it is not like once capitalism came along, the parents said “Well kids, it looks like capitalism has arrived. Time to ship you off to the to coal mines.” If anything, it was capitalism and the division of labor which allowed productivity to rise and capital to accumulate which contributed to no longer having the need for children to work anymore. So capitalism saved children from starvation. They worked because their families only had two choices. Either their children work or their children starve. But advocates of the state then wish to call this “inhumane”? The only inhumanity here is condemning someone to death by starvation due to ones warped sense of morality and history.
This leads to the second point with this argument. Workers in sweatshops, including children, are not slaves. They choose these conditions and the ability to choose is an important aspect of human autonomy. Many times, children choose factory work in these developing nations as opposed to choosing less safe and damaging work such as pan handling, prostitution and stealing. It is significant to understand that children and factory workers in developing parts of the world may not like their work and desire to improve their conditions so that they do not need to work in factories, but given their options it is the best they have. To interfere by banning the best option they have only hurts these children that are already in dire circumstances.2
It is also important to note that creating laws banning children from working does not mean these children are free to go look for alternative ways of bettering their lives or that they magically enroll in school. Take Bangladesh as an example. Western nations in the 1990s threatened to ban imports from the country because of child labor. Factories and lawmakers in the country then fired 30,000 child workers and these children didn’t find a better life. Many fell into prostitution and other terrible lines of work rather than sweatshops.3
The United States went through painful growing pains but thanks to capitalism, the division of labor, and the accumulation of capital that came as a result, America eventually achieved a point where child labor became less relevant. It wasn’t the supreme overlords and theirs laws that ended child labor but capitalism. As can be seen from Bangladesh, just banning something doesn’t mean you can solve the problem and can actually make the situations worse for those the laws are trying to help.
The solution to ending child labor abroad is making international trade easier and allowing capital to more easily flow into these developing nations. Like the United States a long time ago, these developing nations can eventually reach the point of productivity where child labor becomes irrelevant.
1. Mises, Ludwig Von. Socialism: An Economic and Sociological Analysis
. New Haven: Yale UP, 1951. Print.
2. Zwolinski, Matt. “Sweatshops, Choice, and Exploitation.” Ed. Denis G. Arnold. Business Ethics Quarterly 17.4 (2007): 689-727. Web.
3. Kline, Jesse. “Shutting down Sweatshops Just Throws Workers onto the Streets.” National Post Jesse Kline Shutting down Sweatshops Just Throws Workers onto Thestreets Comments. N.p., 27 Apr. 2013. Web. 28 Jan. 2015.