Saturday, May 06, 2006

Libertarians support child labor.

In arguments with Miron's supporters, they bring up the standard libertarian arguments in favor of child labor. So I did a little hunting.

Can Developing Countries Afford to Ban or Regulate Child Labor?, by Mark Weisbrot, Robert Naiman, and Natalia Rudiak, points out that modern developing countries are as rich we were in the first world when we gave it up. Along the way they disabuse a number of other foolish arguments.

In my Privatization and Deregulation index.


D. Martin said...

Yes. This is a well-known fact. Frequently, when debating Libertarians on on-line forums (such as they frequently claim that they support a "child's right to work". They also claim to "oppose statist laws interfering with such a right". It really is rather peculiar.

Glen said...

It's an interesting argument, but I'm not convinced. Those countries that banned child labor roughly a century ago had reasonably well-functioning institutions and decent prospects for further economic improvement. Those that are just getting around to thinking about banning it now aren't in quite the same situation.

Sure, they have a similiarly high GDP/capita, but they have that in part by virtue of exploiting their global competitive advantage in low-skill industries. England could keep buying cheap cloth from India and specialize in something else; India can't really do the same. Make the few industries they are doing well at less efficient and those GDPs will drop.

All of which is a roundabout way of saying I think the Indians and the Chinese are better able to judge for themselves when they are ready to take such a step than we are. (It almost works as an argument that they could afford to try it, but not as an argument that we should force them to.)

Mike Huben said...

Indians also have global competitive advantage in higher-skill industries such as programming and phone services, as you of all people should know, Glen. Prohibiting child labor is a major step in developing human capital: producing an educated populace with high productivity. Locking people into low-productivity jobs for life (by employing them in the lowest productivity occupations as children) is foolish.

Oh, and these nations have already decided for themselves, when they signed UN conventions on rights of the child. The trick is to get them to abide by their decisions.

Glen said...

India is still very much a third-world nation. A tiny, tiny sliver of India's population is internationally competitive in a few technical fields, but the vast majority of the country is still unproductive, poor beyond measure, and likely to remain so for a good long time to come.

I was mistaken in saying that the GDPs are similar; they actually aren't. You may find this paper of interest in that regard:

We find that every ILO-proposed labor standard is highly premature for the developing countries of Sub-Saharan Africa. These countries are between 100 and 300 years from reaching this threshold. Similarly, we find that so-called sweatshop-intensive developing countries are between 35 and 100 years from this threshold.

Incidentally, it is not true that employing children locks them into low-productivity jobs for life. Work experience in modern factories can lead to better productivity and better jobs just as working at a McDonald's here can lead to better jobs later in life. Anyway, it's a damn sight better than the next-best option of working in the fields.

(My views on this matter are partly based on my experience visiting and working in a chinese factory that did electronics assembly, employing a great many 16-20 year-olds. That job was transitional employment for teens there just as McDonalds is here. Nobody does it for a lifetime.)

Glen said...

The main difference between the two articles is which group of countries is being looked at. The article you referenced seems to have used "Do they sell us t-shirts?" as their criterion for inclusion in the list of "developing countries". Which produced an unusually wealthy collection of "poor countries".

Mike Huben said...

Somehow, I just had a hunch about the paper you cited Glen. And I was right: the authors wear their crank Austrian credentials proudly.

So I read their paper. By their logic, Sub-Saharan Africa should reinstitute slavery for another 62 years. You see, abolition of slavery is one of those wealthy-country labor policy choices that African nations can't afford yet at this stage of their economic development, by their logic. Indentured servitude? Another 89 years.

Can't you just feel the liberty we'd be granting them by avoiding western labor standards?

Libertarians: always helping with the aristocracy's problem of finding good servants.