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Much of modern anti-capitalist thought came out of the Industrial Revolution. Indeed, the modern notions of socialism have their roots in the early 19th century thoughts and writings of Saint-Simon, Fourier and others. The highpoint for this thinking probably occurred during the Revolutions of 1848 that spread through Europe.  That is also the same year the Communist Manifesto was published.

A theme that I vividly recall in my history textbooks, and we see often repeated today, especially in claims made against multinational corporations establishing factories in poor countries, is that child labor is caused by industrialization, and that the working conditions of the children were nothing short of appalling.

I am not sure I am qualified to discuss the working conditions in factories during the various Industrial Revolutions, but I am moderately able to comment on what preceded it and what has happened since. Before industrialized production became popular, virtually the entire population was engaged in agriculture or small craft production. In terms of the latter craft producers, it was not uncommon for the smallest of children to begin apprenticeships as blacksmiths and other manual laborers. Is this any less appalling than small children sitting at a seat operating a loom? I am not qualified to say. Or consider, more importantly, the case of agriculture. I have not seen much of the world, but I have glimpsed poor farming in some countries and have definitely seen poor farming in America. If a farm was operated merely by a father (and possibly mother) dragging a horse drawn plow, the farm would be totally unable to produce enough food for the family. Pre-industrial agriculture was, and modern “poor” agriculture, is, characterized by the entire family getting their hands dirty – and often in very uncomfortable, dangerous, monotonous jobs. Even if the small children were not employed out in the fields, they surely were agonizing somewhere on the homestead.

Even this neat reality series demonstrates that this is not some sort of speculative pipe-dreamy hypothesis, but the stark reality of life in pre-industrial times. For further evidence that kids had to work, and work hard, in order to survive prior to life in the factories, ask yourself how many children have you seen on the various expeditions that have made their ways into movies, books and modern lore? If it is so easy to provide for kids in the pre-capitalist world, then how come we never see any kids frolicking about, being easily provided for, when men challenge themselves to live in conditions not unlike our pre-industrial ancestors lived in?

Indeed, the Industrial Revolution, rather than being the black pock-mark that it is popularly portrayed as, was the beginning of the freeing of children from the horrors of having to work in dangerous conditions. With the application of machinery and steam power (and later electric power) one man could now do the work of dozens. This massive expansion in the ability of a single person to produce goods and services for others along with the changing attitudes that emerged during the Industrial Revolution are precisely what made it possible to put an end to child labor.

If that doesn’t make sense to you, then how about supporting a new global law which outlaws child labor. Head into the deepest depths of the poorest countries of the world, and tell them that their children are not legally permitted to work. And then don’t blame the capitalists for what ends up happening (or not happening) to current and future poor kids.

Do readers remember what their high school history books said about child labor? I’d bet a dollar to a donut that whatever they did or did not say about working conditions during the Industrial Revolution, they most certainly did not say anything about working conditions, especially for children, prior to the Industrial Revolution.

10 Responses to “Child Labor and the Industrial Revolution”

  1. Harry says:

    A few months ago Greta aired her show from North Korea, and one segment showed people with shovels, working the rows of something green and I assume edible. The pace of work was similar to a PennDOT crew, without the backhoe. At least they had shovels, as opposed to clamshells or rocks. No children visible.

    I also read an article somewhere about India today, where in many areas women and children spend nearly the whole day fetching water. I bet they wish they had the time for a Citi customer service job.

  2. Rod says:

    About a ten years or so ago a bunch of historical re-enactors tried to show how the Plymouth Colony settlers managed to survive, and they did not succeed in showing how primitive farming methods in a cold climate would be enough to grow all the food needed for the year. They had the additional burden of living according to collective precepts, as opposed to allowing each family the option of working for themselves. Throw in a little collectivism, and you’re sunk.

    Even modern farming relies to some extent on child labor. I started to rake hay as soon as my legs were long enough to reach the pedals of our Ford 8N tractor. In our family, we did not begin our child labor until the age of twelve, which was the age my grandfather ran away from home and came to America to be a glass-blower. Nonetheless, my brother and I had serious summer jobs as soon as we were physically able to do them. Unlike many farm families that simply require the kids to work for free, my brother and I were paid first five cents a haybale and then a dollar an hour (in 1958 dollars) for the hours we actually worked hard (we did not count attendance as the same thing as work). We got in shape; we saved money; and we never had to ask our parents for an “allowance.”

    Just last week, the federal government announced that anyone who operates a tractor or other farm machinery will need a commercial driver’s license. It’s already illegal to hire kids outside the family to work around animals and machinery and to do such things as climb into a hayloft to pitch haybales, but the CDL requirement will apparently apply to farm kids, too. Looking at this as a former farm kid, it stinks: I relished the days when I could do something less physical than pitching haybales or working on the business end of a manure fork. I loved doing field work, and still do: I’d gladly cut silage or cut hay for free, it’s so much fun. So now those jobs will be reserved for adults who are qualified to drive a semi-tractor trailer, and that will drive up farm wages to compete with the trucking business.

    Things could be worse. We could be living in North Korea, where communism prevails.

  3. jb says:

    Why is it that only economists seem to realize that we live in a world of alternatives, and in the third world, the choices are lousy. To put it bluntly, child labor or child prostitution? See

  4. Harry says:

    Great observations jb, and Rod.

    jb, entire economics faculties think money grows on trees along with the spaghetti, and I do not mean to diminish any sage point you make, or have ever made, come to think of it. I assume you were referring to economists who have their own money on the table.

    For the record, the great kid who does my grass and anything else came today with his little brother who is going to be in sixth grade. This is not exploitation of children.

    As wintercow has often said, we live in a free country where the opportunities we have would have unimaginable two hundred years ago.

  5. chuck martel says:

    Yeah, it’s better to have adolescents and teens (at one time a sixteen year-old was considered an adult when it came to agricultural labor) hanging around at the mall trying to score some weed or playing dungeons and dragons instead of contributing to the family coffers and learning some personal responsibility as well as valuable skills. You can’t envy today’s American pre-adults, the process takes too long.

  6. Harry says:

    jb, we have to figure out how to get Mike on all the shows with the talking heads. When I asked my daughter the other day about how she might get to be a talking head, she told me she has to write a book, which was not a cop-out, just an important item on her to-do list. She has the problem figured out.

    I do not know how much money that guy from S&P, their sovereign risk chief makes, but I would rather spend my time listening to Mike, assuming he does not grow a distracting moustache. A few decades ago I learned how S&P defined their ratings.

    This is a project.

  7. Rod says:

    Fox has this woman from Berkeley or Stanford who is their go-to gal for an opposite point of view. She was on “Follow the Money” last night, and she actually said the Obama administration has done a lot for the oil industry. She obviously cannot follow the money. Michael would do that in a snap, but he’d have a hard time qualifying as a token Keynesian. Or Keynan. Or graduate of Kenyon. Something like that.

  8. Rod says:

    Chuck makes a good point: why throw bales of alfalfa when you can throw bales of dope at the mall?

  9. Rod says:

    My son became a caddie at the age of thirteen, and I think the golf club still hires kids under 16 as long as they are physically able to carry golf bags and smart enough to know when to speak.

    It was a great summer job. My son became an “A” caddie in the fullest sense of that term. A-caddies don’t lose golf balls; they find other lost golf balls; they plan ahead so they can take care of two separate golfers; they know the distance to the hole and to the front and back of the green; they tell guests any local knowledge about how to play a hole; they rake sand bunkers and coordinate with the other caddie on who will get the pin; and they can help read greens when asked to (my son explained to me that while I might play the course as much as three or four times a week, he watched putts break every day — but he never contradicted a golfer’s determined read of a putt).

    Most of the golfers he carried for appreciated his pleasant attitude and attentive application of his caddie skills, and he earned good tips on top of the already-pretty-good rate for doubles. Two caddie stories stand out:

    His most remunerative round was caddying for four unaccompanied guests from The Country Club in Brookline, Mass. As they were finishing their first eighteen on our old course, one of them asked, “What’s that course over there?” It was the Grace Course, a long walk for caddies. My son told them it was a whole other golf course just as nice as the Old Course. “Want to go another 18?” one of them asked. “Sure,” said my son, who then carried two bags while two of the foursome took a cart. Now, unaccompanied guests would be at a big disadvantage without a caddie: they would not even know where the next hole was, let alone know the distance and playability of the holes. So my son took care of all four golfers — he didn’t lose any balls, found about a dozen good golf balls, did the yardage for everybody and helped read the putts. At about number 15, the golfers in the cart insisted that my son put the carried bags sideways on the cart and just go on ahead to fore-caddie to speed up play. The golfers from Brookline (one of the best golf clubs in the world) had a total blast, and my son helped make the day for them. So on the 18th hole, one of them gave my son the standard fee and tip for his work, and then one of the other golfers asked, “Did he give you enough money?” My son said, “Yes, he gave me plenty.” The golfer then said, “No he didn’t, here’s another hundred and fifty. You made our day.”

    The other memorable round was one where one of the golfers, a guest, had a set of clubs identical to mine, and he also hit the ball about the same distance as I. When they came to the third shot on a par five, this golfer was in almost the same place as I was the week before. Give me the eleven iron,” the golfer said. “I think you should take the ten,” my son said, “My dad was here last week and took the eleven and he was short.” “I think I can get there with the eleven,” the golfer said. “Trust me, take the ten,” my son said. So the golfer took the ten and knocked it right into the hole for an eagle. That apparently won the round, the back nine and a couple of press bets. My son was really, really happy he had the distance right. On the 18th green, the golfer gave him a good tip for the two bags and then whipped out a fifty and said, “that shot on 15 won everything; consider this a commission.”

    Sorry for such a long post. I love caddie stories.

    Peter Lynch, of Magellan Fund fame, was a caddie once and said it was great experience for his career in the financial business.

  10. jb says:

    Good point Harry. Make that “some economists.”… As for Mike, he would be formidable on the screen, and attractive to programmers because he would create quite a stir and draw audiences. Not sure how to get him out there though…

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