Even in our civilization, child labor was quite normal just a hundred years ago; why not today? What has happened? Is it because we understood that children “deserve” a better childhood? No. Simply, we got rich enough to be able to afford this luxury.
On the subject of child labor, I’ve already attended many different debates, the range of which was more or less covered by many writings of well-known libertarian authors; bet yesterday I participated in one that forced me to think about where are the limits of what is still acceptable and what should be condemned. Considering that the article is about things that usually cause strong emotions, please try to stay calm; although I expect most people to reject my opinions as totally unacceptable, I will be glad for anyone who’ll analytically think about them.
Let’s start with what we (presumably) all agree: If a child is violently forced to work (for example by a slaver), it is a gross infringement of his natural rights, which is totally inexcusable and reprehensible; the same can be said of cases in which the child is somehow deceived, for example he does not get an agreed wage for work, or he doesn’t understand what his work involves, which may include sending a child to a uranium mine without understanding the consequences of radiation and so on. The above mentioned conduct would, of course, be reprehensible even if this was not about children, but adults. Now let’s talk about work that nobody is violently forced to do and at the same time, the worker fully understands, what and under what conditions they want him to do.
Let’s continue with what all reasonable people agree, if they thought about it a little: A child working under conditions we find acceptable. In the middle of Europe, we do not see such things very often, as we live in comparison to the rest of the world in an enormous wealth, so there are de facto no children who would have to work because of existential reasons, while children who want to get money (for example) to buy a computer cannot get a temporary job, because it is restricted by law and it would mean a serious problem for the employer (in the 1990s, I found myself an employer as a child, but according to my information it is far more difficult today). In the poorer parts of the world (Asia, Africa), however, it is a common practice for many children.
Is it bad? Well, we can discuss whether it is better for the children to spend time working or instead to “enjoy childhood” in the way we know in our civilization; but this is a fatal mistake: an alternative to working for poor Asian children is something different from our children’s. Even in our civilization, child labor was quite normal just a hundred years ago; why not today? What has happened? Is it because we have understood that children “deserve” a better childhood? No. Simply, we got rich enough to afford this luxury. When people in Asia and Africa get rich as we are, I am pretty sure that even their children will work far less. Among other things, it is also about a qualification: in the poor parts of the world, where almost everyone is doing unskilled work, a child does not earn much less than an adult, ergo can also be a valid worker in the poor family and earn for their survival; in richer civilizations there is a significant number of jobs requiring qualification, making the average adult labor price relatively much higher than the child’s labor price, so many families would just minimally increase their budget.
Now let’s go one step further, where there is no such consensus, and where the discussion is typically more emotional than logical: A child working in terrible conditions doing a very hard job for a bad salary; good example can be cocoa plantations, where children work from dawn to dusk in terrible heat to get water and a little food. Are their employers reprehensible? Before I try to answer the question, I would like to recall the aforementioned... we are still only talking about situations when the children are not violently forced to do the job. What does it mean when a child decides to accept such work rather than not to accept it? Well, simply, it means they need that water and food so much that they are willing to work hard for it; from that we can deduce that accepting such offer (hard work for water and food) is an improvement for the child (according to its standards), compared to the original state, because if that were not the case, the child would refuse the offer. So it means that those who employ children in such conditions help them, because they clearly improve their situation, compared to the original state.
Many people argue that it is a misuse of one’s desperate situation to self-enrich. This is, of course, true; companies that use the cheap child labor do it for their own enrichment. On the other hand, if these children have the choice of accepting or rejecting such job, and they still accept it, it is a proof, that this opportunity improves their situation because they have no better choice anywhere else (if they had, they would accept a better one). Such a factory or plantation improves the situation of children, the company earns something, and last but not least, it can bring lower prices of products on our market, which will increase our – already extensive - wealth. How can that be reprehensible? It improves the situation of poor children, improves the situation of their employers, which consequently improves the situation of all of us; it definitely does not make anyone’s situation worse. Why should we condemn something that helps everyone (someone more, someone less; it helps somebody to improve its horrible conditions, others to make money, but it helps everyone) and definitely not hurts anyone?
Please consider the following: If a child lives in such poor conditions that it is better for him (for example) to prostitute in order to eat and someone comes to such a child and gives him the choice whether he wants to starve or go with him to bed, he does more for that child than the one sitting in front of PC reading this article. I have no doubt that there are many people among us who help these children (they provide their resources through charity, etc.), and I also belong to them. However, we have to realize that, if there are still such children even with our help in poor countries, then our help is evidently insufficient. As a result, the children to whom our help did not arrive, are doing better with those who pay them (and it is pointless, what work they want to be done).
I certainly do not say that it is good for some children to experience such nightmares; it is really bad that some children have to live like this, it is horrible in how desperate situations people in the poorer parts of the world often find themselves. I do not want to “defend” such things, because it is probably such a horror that we can’t even imagine it here in Central Europe. I only argue that people who want to get rich by employing children (companies employing cheap labor in the poor parts of the world) are actually helping them; I know that their motivation is (mostly) not compassion, however, the result of their actions (no matter what their motivations are) is a real help for people in need, the improvement of their situation (again, I recall that we are talking about cases when it is not a slavery and the children are not forced to do anything, although they are desperate). If we do not like it, let’s help them; if we do not help enough (which is so much, so nobody would end up in desperate situation), then it is hypocritical to condemn those who do so (even if their motivation is purely selfish, it still improves situation of the poor children). If someone is in a desperate situation, the offer of an alternative (even the bad one) does not harm him, if he has the right to decline it; if he accepts it, then he chooses – according to his own standards – lesser evil and by that he – again according to his standards – improves his situation.
Who is him?
Urza is Czech anarcho-capitalist author, he has written about thousand of libertarian texts on the web and printed media and also the first Czech book on anarcho-capitalism. He lectures at schools and conferences, made a number of videos and is often invited to many discussions.