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April 04, 2004

Why Kristof is Wrong on Child Labor

Nicholas Kristof makes a softheaded appeal for why child labor is necessary for many families in the developing world:

It's appalling that Abakr, like tens of millions of other children abroad, is working instead of attending school. But prohibiting child labor wouldn't do him any good, for there's no school in the area for him to attend. If child labor hawks manage to keep Abakr from working, without giving him a school to attend, he and his family will simply be poorer than ever.
But guess what, for the Abakrs of the world collectively, it's far better if they are all denied the ability to work.

And there is a simple reason why. If the children aren't allowed to work, adults elsewhere will be allowed to work, and almost invariably at a higher wage, so they will have more money to bring home and possibly pay the taxes to fund schools for their children.

Repeat that-- you take a job away from a child, you are creating a job slot for an adult, improving his bargaining leverage, and increasing the collective wages paid to the poor in the developing world.

Those who talk about the benefits of child labor invariably tell some story of a particular child, but ignore how the pathetic wages paid to that one child has undermined wages for adults in that country overall. This is why child labor was banned in the United States-- not just because of empathy for children but from hard-headed strategy to deny corporations an easy way to avoid paying adult wages.

When folks like Kristof fail to acknowledge that basic point, common to any real discussion of child labor regulation, he is being either dishonest or ignorant. He could propose some reason why it's good to leave adults unemployed in favor of putting children to work, but if he ignores that basic problem, he isn't even close to making a serious analysis of child labor in the world.

Update: Steve in comments and on his blog wants to argue that Econ 101 means that if employers are forced to substitute more expensive adults for cheaper child labor, they may shut down altogether.

As long as there is demand for the goods involved, employers will keep employing people, even if the labor costs jump a bit. And it's hard to argue with a straight face that a jump in costs from poor child labor to poor adult labor will cut back in consumption of such goods in the developed world. The difference in labor costs is pennies in production costs-- insignificant to almost any consumer decision in the rich world but life and death for the workforce involved.

Steve does say one correct thing:

Further, I can see problems if some countries enact such legislation and others do not.
Which is why a ban on child labor should be enforced globally, built into treaties and trade agreements, so that every country would have to respect the ban on child labor or forego all trade opportunities. If some countries are allowed to cheat, they would gain an advantage economically at the expense of other poor countries. But if a universal ban is enforced, all poor countries will win out collectively.

Posted by Nathan at April 4, 2004 06:09 PM