THE DISMAL SCIENCE LOOKS AT CHILD LABOR | 1999-12-11
Liberals tell us that women used to be looked at as mere child producers. What stopped this, we are told, was liberal policy.
In the real world, the reason women once had to devote most of their lives to nothing but child producing was because they had to have so many children just to keep the population from dying out. Queen Anne of England in the early eighteenth century had eighteen children, and not one of them lived to adulthood. It was not merely poverty-level women whose infants died. The Queen was not a poverty-level person. And it was not liberal sympathy for the poor which reversed this enormous infant mortality.
We are given the impression today that the only reason wages went up in the last century was because of the labor movement and the New Deal. Like most media commentary, this puts cause and effect backwards. Labor unions were only able to get wages higher because productivity went up. More important, wages had been rising steadily for centuries before the New Deal or the rise of unions to national power.
Economics has been called the Dismal Science. One of the things that makes it so dismal is the fact that serious economic analysis destroys the happy story that all you need to be rich and happy is idealistic politicians.
An international protocol has just been signed by the Clinton Administration to abolish child labor throughout the world. Sounds great. Only a student of the Dismal Science would destroy the wonderful atmosphere by asking, "So what happens to the kids?"
If you believe the standard theory that everybody is better off only because "idealists" signed idealistic papers, the banning of child labor in third world countries is just another great advance.
The assumption is that, once child labor is abolished, the children will live happily ever after. The problem is that, in the countries where child labor is being abolished, none of the TECHNICAL and ECONOMIC advances that REALLY allowed us to abolish child labor have taken place. In the countries where there is child labor, people are routinely allowed to starve to death.
This reminds me of an exchange in the old "Pogo" comic strip. One character says, "The Constitution guarantees I can say whatever I want to say." The other character replies, "Yeah, but it don't say nothin' about what happens to you AFTER you says it."
Child labor in many places will now be abolished. But what happens AFTER to the children thus freed from it? The experts and "idealists" who pushed this through feel they have done their jobs. Since they signed a paper, all the kids' problems are over.
I am certainly not saying child labor shouldn't go as soon as possible. I am just saying that when upper-income "idealists" and "experts" have their way, they tend to hurt those they think they are helping.
If we believe that all that is needed to make the world better is for idealists to sign papers, there is no problem. But that view of the world is bad history. And when bad history becomes policy, it kills people.