George Reisman on Child Labor

We are always lectured about how government involvement in labor markets was the cause of the end of child labor. From George Reisman’s new ebook on Socialism/Marxism, he rebuts this:

Capitalism abolishes child labor by virtue of the fact that as the real wages of parents rise, families become less and less dependent on any financial contribution that their children might make. They can thus afford to keep their children home longer and longer. Nowadays, in the United States at least, there are children who do not begin working until the age of twenty-five.

Child labor has existed since caveman days. Historically, everyone’s labor was required in the struggle for bare existence. It’s true that in the early days of capitalism, there were children working as young as the age of four. This was not the fault of capitalism. It was the heritage of human history. Throughout the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, capitalism proceeded to raise the age at which child labor began: from four to seven, to ten, to twelve, to fourteen… and now, in more than a few cases, twenty-five.

That is, it is the realities of scarcity that bear the brunt of the blame for the historical necessity of child involvement in surviving as a household. Unless children were made to contribute to the survival of the family, the family would literally experience (and often did anyway) malnourishment and lack of the basic necessities of life. The entire history of mankind, until the dawn of capitalism and the rising productively brought forth by it, was such that individuals contributed to the household’s sustainability as soon as they were able.

As human beings, very late in their history, began to recognize the benefits of the division of labor, of savings, of investment of those savings into longer production processes, it was only then that the number of goods and services (the measure of the society’s living standard) grew to a point where less and less people needed to contribute to the cause. As productivity increased, the “real wages” (wages, in light of the purchasing power of the money) grew and soon only a single member of the household was able to earn a living for the entire family– and save up for some retirement years in which he could live off the productivity of his younger years!

Children, therefore, no longer have to work (in general) due to capitalism and the rising general levels of wealth in the economy.