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Pez4Life
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I was having a conversation today about Capitalism, and the person I was talking to brought up the working conditions such as children working long hours and other bad labor conditions at the beginning of the industrial revolution, and I really had no response as to how that problem would or would not be solved in a society of lassie-faire Capitalism, so I was hoping someone here would clarify this point for me. Was Capitalism the cause for those conditions or was it something else, and why did that happen? Thanks.

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Unfree markets were the cause of child labor and capitalism was the solution. "Unsafe working conditions" is just a postmodernist way of saying that life was tough 200 years ago.

But exactly how were they the cause? What specific laws or government actions gave rise to these things?

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What's wrong with child labor? What if I want to hire a teenager to fix my computer? Why is a child not allowed to have a job? He's mandated to go to a government educational facility for much of his time, but god forbid he tries to do something productive in the private sector during his off time? It's okay if he's a child movie-star, or a congressional paige, or working in the family store, but not anything else? How does that make sense?

Anyway, If you would have had child labor laws prior to capitalism, people would either ignore them, (or go into something really bad like child prostitution), or die. (Indeed this is what happens when child labor laws are passed in many modern underdeveloped countries.) Children didn't work just because they couldn't play the Wii and chat online in the afternoons, they worked because if they didn't, families could not produce enough to survive. Times were tough, as David says. Capitalism made child labor unecessary, by increasing the productivity of adults to the point where child labor wasn't necessary. (Child labor was outlawed in the US in 1938, when it was largely nonexistent in urban, industrial areas. The employment rate was 6.4% of children between the ages of 10 and 15, 3 out of 4 were employed in agriculture.)

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What's wrong with child labor? What if I want to hire a teenager to fix my computer? Why is a child not allowed to have a job? He's mandated to go to a government educational facility for much of his time, but god forbid he tries to do something productive in the private sector during his off time? It's okay if he's a child movie-star, or a congressional paige, or working in the family store, but not anything else? How does that make sense?

I agree with that wholeheartedly. Perhaps I should have been more clear that the person I was talking to was referring more to things like dangerous working conditions and 18 hour days for children rather than just an average work day. But I do see what you're saying.

On another note, didn't the absence of unions have something to do with the working conditions back then? Correct me if I'm wrong.

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On another note, didn't the absence of unions have something to do with the working conditions back then? Correct me if I'm wrong.

There was once a time "back then" when people carried around stones on their backs and dug in the dirt with their hands just to produce enough to subsist and die at the ripe old age of 40. The Industrial Revolution was a very interesting time in human history, a massive technological and social upheaval and change in living standards and the ability to generate wealth, but the 2010 levels of productivity and technology haven't always been with us.

Compare what you can produce in 40 hours with your bare hands with what you can produce in 40 hours today with modern technology, knowledge, and division of labor. Even if you had a labor union with your bare hands, you're not going to produce a fraction of what you can produce in 400 hours, much less 40, than with 40 in the modern division of labor economy. It's not that it lacked enough unions to take more money from those evil capitalists, it's that the reality of the pre-Industrial economy was very primitive and un-productive. That's what we mean by it was a tough time. And there is absolutely nothing the government can do to help in that process from underdevelopment to prosperity, it can only hamper or stop it altogether.

Edited by 2046
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But exactly how were they the cause? What specific laws or government actions gave rise to these things?

On another note, didn't the absence of unions have something to do with the working conditions back then? Correct me if I'm wrong.

You are looking at the whole issue backwards. You can't take our society as a reference and judge the industrial revolution by our current standards of wealth, poverty and quality of life.

The simple answer to your question is that those kids working 20 hour factory shifts in the early industrial revolution would have been dead if they had been born before it. That is a pretty big improvement in working conditions. Andrew Bernstein's "The Capitalist Manifesto" does a really good job of putting the industrial revolution in perspective, in very accessible language and crystal clear terms. Highly recommended.

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The account I read in either C:TUI or a von Mises text was that child labour is better than child starvation, and at the start of the industrial revolution children worked in factories with relatively good/safe conditions (I mean they're children for christ sake). But then the government passed laws banning child labour - which didn't change the fact that children would rather work than starve, just meant they now had to work in the shadier, illegal establishments which had much worse conditions and no regard/liability for their safety.

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Child labor is still quite common in poorer countries. In rural areas, they might work on their family's farm; in other areas, they may go to work for a third party. For some families, it makes sense that everyone works as soon as they're able.

Edited by softwareNerd
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  • 2 months later...
The account I read in either C:TUI or a von Mises text was that child labour is better than child starvation, and at the start of the industrial revolution children worked in factories with relatively good/safe conditions (I mean they're children for christ sake). But then the government passed laws banning child labour - which didn't change the fact that children would rather work than starve, just meant they now had to work in the shadier, illegal establishments which had much worse conditions and no regard/liability for their safety.

This is entirely true.. The British government outlawed child labour in the 1800's and this made it impossible for children to work in honest, reputable institutions. I dont even understand how the government could not have seen the results of this law coming.. did they think people would just let their children starve? or stop having children altogether? The fact that politicians schooled in the application of laws could be so stupid infuriates me beyond measure

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The "cause" of child labor was work that children could do, thanks to industrial era machinery. Imagine an eight year old doing the work that a decade before took a full-grown adult, and doing it twice as fast and efficiently as the adult did with the old equipment. This freed adults to do other productive work, increased the total productive output of society and made everyone better off. To paraphrase Chairman Mao-Mao, "when you spread the work around, everyone's better off."

I'm not sure what work collies did during the industrial revolution, but the same principle probably applied.

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