The Trouble With Child Labor Laws

Let’s say you want your
computer fixed or your software explained. You can shell out big bucks to the Geek Squad, or you can ask — but you can’t hire — a typical teenager, or even a pre-teen. Their experience with computers and the online world is vastly superior to most people over the age of 30. From the point of view of online technology, it is the young who rule. And yet they are professionally powerless: They are forbidden by law from earning wages from their expertise.

Might these folks have something to offer the workplace? And might the young benefit from a bit of early work experience, too? Perhaps — but we’ll never know, thanks to antiquated federal, state, and local laws that make it a crime to hire a kid.

Pop culture accepts these laws as a normal part of national life, a means to forestall a Dickensian nightmare of sweat shops and the capitalist exploitation of children. It’s time we rid ourselves of images of children tied to rug looms in the developing world. The kids I’m talking about are one of the most courted of all consumer sectors. Society wants them to consume, but law forbids them to produce.

You might be surprised to know that the laws against “child labor” do not date from the 18th century. Indeed, the national law against child labor didn’t pass until the Great Depression– in 1938, with the Fair Labor Standards Act. It was the same law that gave us a minimum wage and defined what constitutes full-time and part-time work. It was a handy way to raise wages and lower the unemployment rate: simply define whole sectors of the potential workforce as unemployable.

By the time this legislation passed, however, it was mostly a symbol, a classic case of Washington chasing a trend in order to take credit for it. Youth labor was expected in the 17th and 18th centuries — even welcome, since remunerative work opportunities were newly present. But as prosperity grew with the advance of commerce, more kids left the workforce. By 1930, only 6.4 percent of kids between the ages of 10 and 15 were actually employed, and 3 out of 4 of those were in agriculture (*).

In wealthier, urban, industrialized areas, child labor was largely gone, as more and more kids were being schooled. Cultural factors were important here, but the most important consideration was economic. More developed economies permit parents to “purchase” their children’s education out of the family’s surplus income — if only by foregoing what would otherwise be their earnings.

The law itself, then, forestalled no nightmare, nor did it impose one. In those days, there was rising confidence that education was the key to saving the youth of America. Stay in school, get a degree or two, and you would be fixed up for life. Of course, that was before academic standards slipped further and further, and schools themselves began to function as a national child-sitting service. Today, we are far more likely to recognize the contribution that disciplined work makes to the formation of character.

And yet we are stuck with these laws, which are incredibly complicated once you factor in all state and local variations. Kids under the age of 16 are forbidden to earn income in remunerative employment outside a family business. If Dad is a blacksmith, you can learn to pound iron with the best of ’em. But if Dad works for a law firm, you are out of luck.

From the outset, federal law made exceptions for kid movie stars and performers. Why? It probably has something to do with how Shirley Temple led box-office receipts from 1934-1938. She was one of the highest earning stars of the period.

If you are 14 or 15, you can ask your public school for a waiver and work a limited number of hours when school is not in session. That goes for you too, homeschoolers. And if you are in private school or home school, you must go ask your local Social Service Agency — not exactly the most welcoming bunch. The public school itself is also permitted to run work programs.

This point about approved labor is an interesting one, if you think about it. The government doesn’t seem to mind so much if a kid spends all non-school hours away from the home, family, and church, but it forbids them from engaging in private-sector work during the time when they would otherwise be in public schools drinking from the well of civic culture.

The law exemption is also made for delivering newspapers, as if bicycles rather than cars were still the norm for this activity.

Here is another strange exemption: “youth working at home in the making of wreaths composed of natural holly, pine, cedar, or other evergreens (including the harvesting of the evergreens).” Perhaps the wreath lobby was more powerful during the Great Depression than in our own time?{mospagebreak}

Oh, and there is one final exemption, as incredible as this may be: Federal law allows states to allow kids to work for a state or local government at any age, and there are no hourly restrictions. Virginia, for example, allows this.

The exceptions cut against the dominant theory of the laws that it is somehow evil to “commodify” the labor of kids. If it is wonderful to be a child move star, congressional page, or home-based wreath maker, why it is wrong to be a teenage software fixer, a grocery bagger, or ice-cream scooper? It makes no sense.

Once you get past the exceptions, the bottom line is clear: Full-time work in the private sector, for hours of their own choosing, is permitted only to those “children” who are 18 and older — by which time a child has already passed the age when he can be influenced toward a solid work ethic.

What is lost in the bargain? Kids no longer have the choice to work for money. Parents who believe that their children would benefit from the experience are at a loss. Consumers who would today benefit from our teens’ technological knowhow have no commercial way to do so. They have been forcibly excluded from the matrix of exchange.

There is a social-cultural point, too. Employers will tell you that most kids coming out of college are radically unprepared for a regular job. It’s not so much that they lack skills or that they can’t be trained; it’s that they don’t understand what it means to serve others in a workplace setting. They resent being told what to do, tend not to follow through, and work by the clock instead of the task. In other words, they are not socialized into how the labor market works. Indeed, if we perceive a culture of sloth, irresponsibility, and entitlement among today’s young, perhaps we ought to look here for a contributing factor.

The law is rarely questioned today. But it is fact that child labor laws didn’t come about easily. It took more than a hundred years of wrangling (see here for a fascinating history). The first advocates of keeping kids out of factories were women’s labor unions, who didn’t appreciate the low-wage competition. And true to form, labor unions have been reliable exclusionists ever since. Opposition did not consist of mining companies looking for cheap labor, but rather parents and clergy alarmed that a law against child labor would be a blow against freedom. They predicted that it would amount to the nationalization of children, which is to say that the government rather than the parents or the child would emerge as the final authority and locus of decision-making.

To give you a flavor of the opposition, consider this funny “Beatitude” read by Congressman Fritz G. Lanham of Texas on the U.S. House floor in 1924, as a point of opposition to a child-labor ban then being considered:

Consider the Federal agent in the field; he toils not, nor does he spin; and yet I say unto you that even Solomon in all his populous household was not arrayed with powers like one of these.

Children, obey your agents from Washington, for this is right.

Honor thy father and thy mother, for the Government has created them but a little lower than the Federal agent. Love, honor, and disobey them.

Whatsoever thy hand findeth to do, tell it to thy father and mother and let them do it.

Six days shalt thou do all thy rest, and on the seventh day thy parents shall rest with thee.

Go to the bureau officer, thou sluggard; consider his ways and be idle.

Toil, thou farmer’s wife; thou shalt have no servant in thy house, nor let thy children help thee.

And all thy children shall be taught of the Federal agent, and great shall be the peace of thy children.

Thy children shall rise up and call the Federal agent blessed.

In every way, the opponents were right. Child labor laws were and are a blow against the freedom to work and a boost in government authority over the family. The political class thinks nothing of legislating on behalf of “the children,” as if they are the first owners of all kids. Child labor laws were the first big step in this direction, and the rest follows. If the state can dictate to parents and kids the terms under which teens can be paid, there is essentially nothing they cannot control. There is no sense in arguing about the details of the law. The critical question concerns the locus of decision-making: family or state? Private markets or the public sector?

In so many ways, child
labor laws are an anachronism. There is no sense of speaking of exploitation as if this were the early years of the industrial revolution. Kids as young as 10 can surely contribute their labors in some tasks in ways that would help them come to grips with the relationship between work and reward. They will better learn to respect private forms of authority outside the home. They will come to understand that some things are expected of them in life. And after they finish college and enter the workforce, it won’t come as such a shock the first time they are asked to do something that may not be their first choice.

We know the glorious lessons that are imparted from productive work. What lesson do we impart with child labor laws? We establish early on who is in charge: not individuals, not parents, but the state. We tell the youth that they are better off being Mall Rats than fruitful workers. We tell them that they have nothing to offer society until they are 18 or so. We convey the impression that work is a form of exploitation from which they must be protected. We drive a huge social wedge between parents and children and lead kids to believe that they have nothing to learn from their parents’ experience. We rob them of what might otherwise be the most valuable early experiences of their young adulthood.

In the end, the most compelling case for getting rid of child labor laws comes down to one central issue: the freedom to make a choice. Those who think young teens should do nothing but languish in classrooms in the day and play Wii at night will be no worse off. But those who see that remunerative work is great experience for everyone will cheer to see this antique regulation toppled. Maybe then the kids of America can put their computer skills to use doing more than playing World of Warcraft.

Jeffrey Tucker


Jeffrey Tucker is managing editor of Sacred Music and publications editor of the Church Music Association of America. He writes a bi-weekly column on sacred music and liturgy for Crisis Magazine and also runs the Chant Cafe Blog.

  • Deal Hudson

    Jeff, I agree with you. One of my main complaints of my daughter’s generation — she is 19 — is that far too few of them have had jobs. Part of the problem are the laws against child labor, which play into the hands of lazy children and lazier parents who don’t make this a priority in their child-rearing (yes, I’m a guilty party, though I tried.) I hope your timely recommendation gets some policy legs.

  • jeffrey

    Thank you Deal! I found this article rather difficult to write in some way, because the idea seems preposterous to people. Sometime it is hard to think outside the box. But in doing the research I was particularly intrigued at the history: that it was women’s textile unions who first pushed for this for economic reasons, that the final law didn’t go into effect until 1938, that there are so many exemptions due to lobbying pressure and the like. Essentially the core of the problem is that the state has set itself up as a referee between parents and their kids, with the strange result that the work ethic among the young has been smashed. They are not encouraged to think of themselves as productive members of society. They have been told that if they hang around in school for long enough, they will be fixed up for life, and then they are shocked to discover that employers expect things of them. How sad that so many generations have been raised without a sense of what it means to do something useful with your time before the age of 18. The amazing thing is that kids these days are more prepared for remunerative work than ever before, and yet the law stands in the way.

    I have no illusions that this article will start a movement for the repeal of child labor laws, but maybe it will get some discussion going.

    Outraged readers should feel free to blast away!

  • Yumi Kim

    Folks under 18 should have a choice as to earning a living full-time. In the UK, state education keeps children at school to the age of 15-16 and they are free to study further at high school towards universities. Therefore many teenagers start working full-time. However, in a bid to keep teenagers out of trouble, it has been suggested that it should become compulsory for them to be in school until the age of 18. This will keep many teenagers against their wishes and it ignores the fact that not everyone is suited to higher education.

  • Jim O’Connor

    Hi Mr. Tucker,
    That was a great article. It is funny how once a law is in place the popular (statist) culture creates a historic fiction to justify it.

  • Steve Hogan

    I have several liberal friends who would be apoplectic at the thought of permitting child labor. Shocking!

    I remember working many weekday afternoons and weekends at my parent’s liquor store long ago. It may have been my junior high years, maybe even before. Imagine that: a 12-year-old stocking shelves with beer and wine, and serving borderline alcoholics at 7:00AM on Sundays. But I knew that it what paid the mortgage and put food on our table.

    Far from being slave labor (I got paid in baseball cards, which ironically enough are more valuable than the funny green paper currently in my wallet…), it taught me some valuable lessons that have carried over into adulthood: punctuality, a work ethic, and showing others respect. Heck, I even learned how to make change properly, which is more than I can say for most cashiers today.

    Probably most importantly, I got to see first hand that my parents worked their tails off to keep a roof over our heads. They were my role models both at home and at work. Most kids these days miss experiences like that entirely, and we are all worse off because of it.

    A thought-provoking article, Jeff.

  • Shawn H.

    I didn’t realize until reading this post that my parents were such hardened criminals. Since the age of eight, I worked odd jobs (outside of the employ of my parents) including paperboy, lawn mower, house cleaner, janitor, tutor and painter.

    In retrospect, these jobs were “black market” jobs and my parents were guilty of selling me into child labor. In fact, this “injustice” is still rampant in my hometown. Can you believe that sweet old lady down the street pays 10 year old Timmy to mow his lawn? When will the cycle of abuse end?

  • wind


  • Kathryn

    wind wrote
    [quote=Someone]In the very first paragraph you propose to exploit children: why pay

  • Daniel M. Ryan

    …some people insist upon conflating work, sex and prostitution. I haven’t figured out where such an attitude comes from, and my own moralization skills are sufficiently deficient for me to be left bereft at the opportunity to concoct some kind of counter-moralization.

    Suffice it to say that the typical set of parents have a modicum of common sense.

    Myself, I delivered papers for six years, a timeframe that my puberty intersected. Despite my route being located in “Wicked Suburbia,” no lonely housewife that yearned for young flesh ever made a pass at me. Perhaps this resulted from my lack of attractiveness, but I suspect that my lack of that kind of experience was typical in this area.

    (Speaking of which: an underage prostitution ring could easily be run under the cover of a paper route network – not to mention a babysitting network. Obviously, the child-labour laws are little deterrent to someone eager to pursue the business of that kind of vice.)

  • Brian Broderick

    Oh,no! What’s next? Kids with cell phones. Maybe, we need the government to help us regulate our children.

    When I was 8 to 14 years old, I used to buy cigarettes for my father, an inveterate smoker. The store owners new my father and me. They also knew an 8 year old would not be smoking two packs of Old Golds a day.

    With about $0.55, I could buy two packs of cigarettes and a 5 cent candy bar. When I got a little older, 13 or 14 year old, the store clerk got younger. She was 10 to 12 years old and worked for her family and lived upstairs.

    By the time I was 16 years old, the law caught up to me. I was now too young to buy cigarettes for my father.

    This illustrates a few points:

    -The smoke Nazi crowd.

    -The interference of child labor laws in private lives.

    -The debasement of our currency by the government

    Whatever Happened to Penny Candy?

  • Zoe Romanowsky

    Jeff, thanks for a thought-provoking article. I made an extended comment on the inside blog (01/22/08) but thought I

  • jeffrey

    Thinking more about this, there is a pernicious culture impact of child labor prohibitions. It drives a huge wedge between the adult world and the kid world. The kids can’t identify with what adults do, and adults, who know something about the world of work, don’t have much to offer the kids. By the time the kids do enter the workforce, the parents have lost formative influence. So dealing with bosses, wages, work demands, co-workers etc. all must take place without the benefit of parental help. This is a very dangerous thing that has artificially separated parents from children.

    As for the fear that someone somewhere will do bad things if we have freedom, we hear this all the time. “Homeschooling is fine, and I know I would do a good job at it, but there are lots of slobs and deadbeats out there who would abuse the system. We need to have everyone in public school so that the civic elites can prevent horrible things from happening!”

    Do you see where this is going? The major excuse for ridding society of freedom and for exalting the state is the fear of abuse. But we must ask ourselves why we are so darn trusting of the State that it can crack down on bad behavior and do a much better job than society itself.

  • jeffrey

    Yet another point: I don’t get this anti-commercial bias that if someone is being paid, he is somehow entering an evil world of the exploitative cash nexus and will be strangled by it. It’s about time that we recognize that commercial is no more or less than a cooperative exchange relationship. It means working with others on a mutually beneficial basis. Let’s leave the wild fantasies of socialist out of the argument.

  • R. Packard

    It is certainly interesting to see the myths that are used to defend these laws, both by the lawmakers who enact them and those who are in favor of them. Take for example, the last point made by Ms. Romanowsky, that Mr. Tucker is “suggesting we repeal all Child Labor Laws so six years could, technically, be sent into the workforce.”

    Not to be flippant, but this is the type of sound bite I would expect to hear come out of a politician’s mouth. The reality is that there isn’t much that any six-year-old would ever be hired to do. Corporate America doesn’t want six-year-olds. In fact, I’m not sure what paid service a six-year-old could provide, other than perhaps being the subject of child pornography or prostitution. Those services are obviously abhorrent, but we certainly don’t need a labor law to deal with them – a law narrowly-tailored to prevent child pornography and prostitution would be more appropriate.

    And it seems like Mr. Tucker’s overall point is, as he says, that this specific law has had the effect of driving a substantial wedge between parents and children. While it’s always tempting to look for the most extreme case that might justify a law, we might be better served to consider how much stronger families might be, and therefore how much more protected children would be from the bad things of this world, if government didn’t interfere into private relationships as much as it does.

  • Sven Ragnarson

    The problem I see with your proposal is that you are supposing kids have the same ability to make rational decisions as adults do. And that is obviously not the case. We keep children from having sex until a certain age for two big reasons. One, because they lack the ability to make rational decisions about it. Two, because that lack of experience can lead to their being exploited by someone older and more knowledgeable.

    Is it really such a stretch that, if kids were given the ability to work, that they too will be taken advantage of? I know that pundits like Tucker like to think that the employee/employer relationship is the meeting of two perfectly rational beings, each entirely cognizant of what they other brings to the table, agreeing to benefit each other mutually. But we all know that isn

  • KuanYin

    I do like Jeffrey Tuckers article a lot. And all this talk about that some exploitation will happen if the government doesn’t have all the laws in effect to protect our children is a bunch of bull. Criminals do not care how many laws are in effect, they do whatever they darn well please. It is only the law-abiding citizen who is affected by these laws, and more often than not we are adversely affected by these ridiculous laws. Laws like that, and people who enforce them, and people who want them, are just saying that I am not capable of taking care of and protecting my own children. Who are you to say that you can do a better job with my children than I can? Who are you to say that you know sooo much more about child rearing than the average parent? There will always be lousy parents, and NO law is going to protect the children of those lousy parents. For example, there are laws against child physical abuse, yet this abuse is rampant. (I am not suggesting to repeal laws against physical abuse)
    Nobody is suggesting that children should go out in the so-called “cold” world on their own. I for one would know to teach my children what is and what isn’t acceptable in the “cold” world of the work force.
    Most parents know how to teach their kids, so let’s give the parents the right to take care of their own children without government interference, or having some do-gooder insist the he knows better than the parents. Most do-gooders live in lala land not in the real world.

  • Chris Baker

    I’m against these laws, too, Jeff. But there are plenty of “old” people who can do computer work as well. Please don’t promote this myth that one has to be young to be good at this work.

    Age discrimination in IT starts around 35 or so and only gets worse as you get older.

  • Ed Burley

    Dr. Robert Epstein has written a book that makes a compelling case for reconsidering the designation of “adolescent.” 150 years ago, some of these young people were working their own land, married with children on the way. It is our modern cultural bias that pits young adults against their parents. As the teens struggle for independence, they are met at every turn with an overbearing state who penalizes them for being under 18.

    We would do well, as parents, to find ways to encourage our children to grow into adulthood when God intended. Puberty has a purpose, and to ignore it is what has created much of the problems with teen sex, teen pregnancy and abortion. There’s no way in our culture that a young man who is 16, who gets his 15 year old girlfriend pregnant, can do the “honorable thing.” It comes down to either aborting the baby, or having the girl’s family raise it (or worse yet, have the state raise it through foster care, etc.).

    Child Labor laws are wrong on so many levels it is almost laughable at the rhetoric of those who support them. Surely “evil parents” like me shouldn’t be allowed to “exploit my children.” Just have the state take them away. Then they can be raised to be “good little citizens of the state.” That’s just what the statists want.

  • KuanYin

    Thank you Chris Baker. You are absolutely right that “old” people are perfectly capable of working with computers. I’m a senior citizen and I know how to build a computer from scratch, and I didn’t learn that until just a few years ago. There are many things I do know about computers and there are many things that I still want to learn. This seems to be an ongoing, life long quest, since computers and programs are always changing and new things being added. 🙂 But many times I do learn these new things from youngsters. I have 5 kids, two of them are very knowledgeable, but three of them know very little about computers. You’d be amazed at how many of the young DON’T know the first thing about computers, or they only know who to play games on it, or chat on MySpace. 🙂

  • KuanYin

    KuanYin wrote: Thank you Chris Baker. You are absolutely right that “old” people are perfectly capable of working with computers. I’m a senior citizen and I know how to build a computer from scratch, and I didn’t learn that until just a few years ago. There are many things I do know about computers and there are many things that I still want to learn. This seems to be an ongoing, life long quest, since computers and programs are always changing and new things being added. 🙂 But many times I do learn these new things from youngsters. I have 5 kids, two of them are very knowledgeable, but three of them know very little about computers. You’d be amazed at how many of the young DON’T know the first thing about computers, or they only know how to play games on it, or chat on MySpace. 🙂

  • dcs

    [quote]But do we really have to tell our kids to put down the Barbie or GI Joe, and thrust them into the cold world of cut-throat commerce as soon as they are old enough to say,

  • David Rogers

    What I like most about Mr. Tucker’s proposal is that kids would have to pay taxes. Currently, most people don’t have to pay taxes until they’ve been indoctrinated by the educational system. Allowing kids to begin working earlier, and to see a chunk of their paychecks disappear would give them a chance to react naturally to the fundamental unfairness of taxation.

  • Zoe Romanowsky

    Mr. Regnarson is right: Children are not adults and should not be treated as such. Our society

  • Marshall

    One area not yet mentioned where the state apparatus has no problem

  • (8?

    [quote=Zoe Romanowsky]

  • Jason Gordon

    For practical legal purposes, minors cannot enter into legally binding contracts. For this reason, parents would necessarily be the surrogate agent in all employment contracts and a guarantor in case of liability. This legal contractual intermediation impels the parent to avoid negligence and acts as a buffer against exploitation while concurrently serving as evidence in egregious cases of parental neglect or employer impropriety.

    Simply upholding contracts should be the limit of the State’s involvement in this matter.

  • Matthew Swartz

    Mr. Tucker’s article was interesting as always, but after reading it, I was struck with another unintended consequence of child labor laws.

    In this country, we have a shortage of laborers, so illegal immigrants find it profitable to come here illegally and work. I don’t blame them necessarily, since they’re just trying to make a buck in this world just as I am, but I can’t help thinking that if our children were allowed to work, they would price illegal immigrants right out of the market in many cases. Cooking, construction work, and shelf-stocking, are all jobs that could be done by children to, as the article pointed out, the benefit of everyone.

    Instead, we induce others to come and do these jobs, breaking the law in the process, and place a strain on our communities.

  • Michael Srite

    Besides the Fair Labor Standards Act, there are at least two other laws that sometimes affect child employment–Davis-Bacon and Copeland. Some years ago I was a contracting officer for the Bureau of Land Management. One of our best fence builders was a man named Stamper, from Idaho. As a good Mormon, Mr. Stamper had a bunch of children who he used in his business when they weren’t in school. One day, our inspector noticed Mr. Stamper wasn’t putting the kids on the payrolls, and insisted he do so. Mr. Stamper didn’t object to that, as he was paying them; however, he wasn’t paying them the union scale required by his contract with the Government. They probably weren’t worth union scale but he couldn’t pay them less because of the Davis-Bacon and Copeland Acts. Anyway, he thought it would morally corrupt the children to pay them the high wages and he tried every way he could to avoid it, but the laws are practically loop-hole proof. He essentially could not legally use his own children in his business.

  • Real D’Hill


    Who will take courage and lead us out of this dark valley? Who is willing to risk potential legal ramifications for the greater good?Who will fight for the future of this great nation and stand up for kids across America? Who will dispense with the lip-service and take responsible action in the matter of kids and their overall well-being? Who among us is willing to risk it all to make even the smallest dent in the wall of injustice against youth? Who among us has the courage to help parents regain the respect of their own kids? Who will pick his/her sling-shot and stand against this GOViath for the sake of our nation’s future?

    Who truly understands that our labor/productivity problems were not created over night and also realizes that the best possible scenario may take up to 2-3 generations to have any real affect? Will parents be prepared for the freedom and responsibility of truly raising kids and teaching them self-reliance?…Are we capable of instilling Work-Ethic? Is it possible for us to teach something that we don’t know ourselves? I mean, are America’s parents prepared to correct their own work-ethic deficiencies while teaching work-ethic to their young?

    Will our government ever evolve beyond more systematic regulations and controls of it’s citizens? Ok, let me rephrase that last question! – Will our government ever learn to stand for anything other that it’s own interests. Since 1938 you say? Haven’t we gone past the point of diminishing returns? How many Americans under the age of 70 has any real knowledge about a ‘honest days work?’ Can anyone tell me what will happen to our economy when the top 2% of us is in control of 90 % of our country’s domestic wealth? (are we there yet?) What happens when the average American’s standard of living sinks below that of a third-world country? Any economist, mathematician, social-demographers, historians or true prophets reading this blog?

    Are there any magicians, wizards, angels or gods among us that will rescue us from imminent disaster? OUR NATIONS ECONOMIC BUBBLE CANNOT POSSIBLE TAKE MUCH MORE.

    Surely someone among us has the will and courage to take action against the insanity that is slowly crippling America.

    ANY VOLUNTEERS?…SEND ME…I’LL GO…I’m Just A Guy But I Know Some Stuff!

    Real D’Hill

  • Richard Bruce

    In the article the writer claims that college graduates who were not even covered by child labor laws for the last several years, and have had several summer vacations to work, are somehow prevented from gaining work experience by child labor laws. This is silly.

    Of course Americans are famous for their strong work ethics. We work longer hours than any other industrial democracy.

    When high school students spend a lot of time at work their grades tend to suffer, and the habit they pick up is not a work habit it is frequently a drug habit. It would not be so bad if the parents would collect the pay for the use of the family, but that is not how things work in our society.

  • Carlos Caso-Rosendi

    Brian Broderick wrote:
    When I was 8 to 14 years old, I used to buy cigarettes for my father, an inveterate smoker. The store owners new my father and me. They also knew an 8 year old would not be smoking two packs of Old Golds a day.
    With about $0.55, I could buy two packs of cigarettes and a 5 cent candy bar. When I got a little older, 13 or 14 year old, the store clerk got younger. She was 10 to 12 years old and worked for her family and lived upstairs.
    By the time I was 16 years old, the law caught up to me. I was now too young to buy cigarettes for my father.
    This illustrates a few points:
    -The smoke Nazi crowd.
    -The interference of child labor laws in private lives.
    -The debasement of our currency by the government
    Whatever Happened to Penny Candy?


    What this country really needs is good 5 cent cigar.


  • Carlos Caso-Rosendi

    Real D’Hill wrote: MIGHT I ASK A FEW QUESTIONS?
    Who will take courage and lead us out of this dark valley?
    ANY VOLUNTEERS?…SEND ME…I’LL GO…I’m Just A Guy But I Know Some Stuff!
    Real D’Hill

    Dear Real,
    I don’t know the exact answers but those sure are good questions. My generic answer to hard problems is Jesus. I hear lots of Catholics brothers and sisters saying very intelligent things about government, church and state and so on but I hear very little about the role of Christ the King in all of it.

    So what are we to do with Jesus our King and His Kingdom of the Heavens? Well, I have good news. He has planted a seed and it is silently growing among us (but we don’t know how).

    The huge problems before us are more or less like His proposal to St. Phillip “Hey Phil, give them 5,000 people something to eat.” Phil the Practical Man panicked but somehow, out of a very poor and scanty dinner the King made more than enough to feed everyone. Why did he place Phil in that awful position? Obviously Jesus wanted Phil to have a sense of his own real measure as a man. May be Phil’s problem was self-sufficiency, I don’t know!

    Anyway, the solution started not in Phil’s head but in the head of that little enterprising boy who went to the crowds to sell two little fishes and five barley loaves. May be he had caught the little fishes himself and took them to his mom and mom added the barley bread and sent his little boy to sell the food for a coin.

    May be the King saw that modest and brave effort and decided to make it into an eternal lesson.

    In any case, if you want to know the way out of this mess, just look around you, we are the same Americans that conquered a hostile continent and set foot on the moon. We are the ones who buried Nazism and Communism (with a little help from above), we are the resourceful, hard-working, sharp-thinking, straight-shooting Americans. And we can do it (if the King help us a bit).
    God Bless

  • guy
  • JimmyV

    Mr. Tucker,

    A great article. Thanks for doing the research. It’s illuminating to note the havoc this type of intrusive law does to families. I just read your aricle on the benefits of cooperation which was also enlightening. Do you have a book? If not, please write one.

  • I am not Spartacus

    Essentially the core of the problem is that the state has set itself up as a referee between parents and their kids, with the strange result that the work ethic among the young has been smashed.

    The Federal Government, which chose a Mother of Three to be the CIA Station Chief in Afghanistan (just killed by a Jordanian Muslim Jihadist who was allowed into the CIA Camp unfrisked) has only the best interest of families at heart and they have the Duty to keep us from harming our own children by preventing your I-know-better-than-the-state-what-is-best-for-my-children radicalism that has led to so many problems throughout history (Do I even have to mention all of the lives of children lost in the Rhinestone Mines outside of Nashville?)

    If you think Barbara Boxer,Nancy Pelosi,Lindsay Graham, and Susan Collins do not have the best interests of your children at heart and do not know what is best for your children then all I can say is that you are prolly one of those atavistic Catholics attached to the Usus Antiquior.

    Well, Mr. Tucker, you and all of your bow-tie-wearing-brethren may wish to sell your children into slavery, but not me.

    They will be raised by The State, State-Licensed Child Care Centers, and MTV,the way God intended.

  • Ann

    I really don’t even know where to start with this article, so I won’t. But I will be removing Inside Catholic from my blog feed ASAP.

  • Bill H

    “Well, Mr. Tucker, you and all of your bow-tie-wearing-brethren may wish to sell your children into slavery, but not me.”

    Just so we’re all on the same page, Murray Rothbard, one of the founders and intellectual luminaries behind Mr. Tucker’s employer, believed that selling a child was a perfectly acceptable option if the parents did not wish to raise it. As was abortion. As he wrote in “The Ethics of Liberty”, which is reproduced in full on Mr. Tucker’s website:

    ‘But should the mother decide that she does not want the fetus there any longer, then the fetus becomes a parasitic

  • Christine

    I loved your comment, Not Spartacus.

    The funny thing is that I have spent a very long time hiring both high school and college graduates and in the time I have done it; I have found that both the maturity level and the skill levels have decreased with the younger generation.

    I don’t know if this has anything to do with child labor laws, considering that a good percentage of the people I have hired come from more disadvantaged backgrounds and have worked – yes kids find a way to work when there isn’t enough money for rent.

    It seems to me that the laws are just one symptom of a larger problem that I believe has to do with the denigration of the family unit and women in the workforce. I know that I am a woman in the workforce, so I guess I am damning myself…

    Before, children learned work skills from their fathers and home economics from their mothers because there was a split of familial work duties. This split of duties between family members allowed more time to teach children about life and the world. This world, as God made it be when he cursed Adam, is a life of toil. From the labor of our backs we toil.

    Without a father in the home, who teaches the kids the value of work? With mom both working outside of the home and trying to do her traditional share of work in the home, where is there time to teach kids how to maintain a household and its finances?

    So we create laws for whatever reason we create them and our kids are raised by childcare, MTV and the State. Who else will raise them? And if they are taught to sit and let everyone else do everything for them, how will they know how to work?

    Although I do hire them, I don’t like hiring young people. Their work product is generally sub-standard and their expectations are generally set very high. Due to the degradation of the family, we have raised little princes and princesses who come to work late, spend their days texting and on their cell phones, and don’t get the job done, like their older counterparts.

    I don’t know if changing the laws will have any effect because of the state of our society today.

  • Timothy

    This sight is full of reactionary far right loonies!

  • Brendon

    What I find most interesting about Mr. Tucker’s position is that the Catholic Church in America agreed with it. American Catholics – including the hierarchy – fought against child labor laws in the 1920’s because they recognized, as does Mr. Tucker, that allowing the law to get between parents and children with regard to such decisions treats children as if they were mere creatures of the state.

    More information on this is available in the following article: Bill Kauffman, “Child Labor Amendment Debate of the 1920’s; or, Catholics and Mugwumps and Farmers,” Journal of Libertarian Studies 10, no. 2 (1992): 139-69 (available on-line from

    Murray Rothbard’s position on abortion is unfortunate and wrong, but it is not relevant to the discussion. Both Plato and Aristotle saw abortion and infanticide as perfectly acceptable. Original sin darkens the intellect and weakens the will. All truth us our truth, as St. Justin Martyr said, because all truth has its origin in the Logos, Who is Truth Itself. St. Augustine saw no problem in taking Egyptian gold (pagan philosophy) and using it to create the Ark of the Covenant and to adorn the Temple (Christian theology). Why any of us should pretend to know better than the greatest of the Western Fathers is beyond me.

    If Rothbard is wrong in his application of first principles, demonstrate that his conclusion does not follow. If he is wrong about first principles, refute him. But don’t pretend you are saying something intelligent by pointing out that he uses his philosophical positions to defend what the Church has always condemned, because you aren’t. Such a position has the absurd conclusion of reducing 2000 years of Catholic theology to dust and ash because it utilized the work of pagan philosophers who also accepted such evils as morally good.

  • Christine

    I think that kids need fathers before the child labor laws could ever possibly be repealed. With our dysfunctional society and non-existant family structure, we would probably do more harm than good if we repealed them.

  • Bonald

    The claim that child labor laws undermine parental authority is dubious. Their goal is to protect and foster a society where the father can fulfil his natural role as the provider of the household. The labor unions were right to push for these laws, and this is the reason why Chesterton also fought against this drive to extract women and children from the home and make them cogs in the capitalist machine. Suppose we make child labor optional–what whould happen? What happens when you increase supply and hold demand constant? The price goes down, obviously. Feminism has already been a boon to employers–doubling the work force so that one can pay each employee just half a family wage. Legalize child labor, and you might double the workforce, and halve wages, again. Of course, this wouldn’t happen in all industries. The high wages of highly-skilled workers would be safe. Poor, unskilled workers would be hurt greviously. Who should we care more about?

    In addition, Chesterton pointed out, having the father, mother, and child each working under different masters will necessarily erode the authority of the father. First, the child’s allegiances are now divided. Secondly, he is no longer wholely dependent on his father. Dependency is the essence of the family–help family members become “independent” of each other, and you necessarily weaken the family bond. Capitalism, socialism, and feminism are just different ways of attacking these bonds of dependency.

  • theorist

    The Austrian School has no ethical assumptions in its analysis of economics, though Murray Rothbard did (he believed in human liberty) which is what led him to support abortion and voluntary slavery; austrian econ., supporting this conclusion only inasmuch as the premise that children are incapable of self-protection supports the conclusion that the state is necessary.

    What a person values is by definition subjective as such, it is not incorrect (qua economics), that child workers would be better off and that they would buy more drugs -if it is what they want then that is what they get. By accommodation: a man’s treasure is where his heart lies.

    Children are unlikely to become prostitutes because of a lack of child labor laws -it is frequently because of child labor laws that children become prostitutes. In reality people are smart enough to avoid such things. Of course exploitation is a possibility but it is of two kinds. The first is exploitation by aesthetic annoyance (for instance your employer plays bad music at the store) but this is a universal fact of cooperation -that you suffer yourself to be annoyed to join with others. The second is exploitation by trickery. But trikery is not always exploitative. If the businessman pays you less than he could’ve and you agree, it is entirely possible that you come out a winner. For instance, if someone gets paid in food -he could get paid in money but he likes food more and perhaps someone apprises him of his low pay; he can still like food more than money and nothing imposes on him an obligation to like pieces of paper more than real goods.

  • theorist

    The law is supposed to be ordained to the good of society but it fails in that it raises prices and secures monopolies to certain classes of producers. In child labor as in other things, it raises the wages of some laborers and prohibits other laborers. The laborers who remain become monopolists. But high wages attract black-market activities and soon a new child labor law is needed.

    This cycle of impoverishment then, can only be stopped by ending all laws.

  • R.C.

    What straw-men are being thrown up by a couple of folk who don’t like the article!

    It seems to me that the article opposes certain things:

    – The status quo which makes technical lawbreakers of industrious youths, though it’s rarely enforced in the case of babysitters and the like;

    – The hard-and-fast dividing line between the may-work and the may-not-work crowd, when a more gradual phase-in (see below) would be more logical;

    – Specifically, prohibiting children with exceptional IT skills from using them as gainfully as children with babysitting skills use their work ability.

    I acknowledge that Mr. Tucker’s proposal raises, however distantly, the possibility of bad parents encouraging children to work too much, too young.

    But that’s the kind of thing which can be avoided by rewriting the law in a certain way. As I mentioned above, the author’s opinions are compatible with the notion of a gradual phase-in as a child gets older, perhaps a “maximum hours-per-day” limit which gradually increased throughout the teenage years.

    The proper response by a reader, to whom such a concern occurs, is to raise that kind of suggestion, thus hopefully improving the whole proposal: This is the kind of deliberative back-and-forth in which a citizen exercises true civic involvement.

    But a few posters here don’t seem familiar with the idea of making ideas better through reasoned deliberation. Why the leap directly to invective, “Wind,” Bill, Ann, Timothy?

    To suggest that the author favors sending pre-pubescent children into conditions of harsh manual labor requires, at minimum, a willfully unfriendly interpretation of the text.

    But to conflate a suggestion to officially permit babysitting jobs under the law (so they aren’t arbitrarily unenforced violations) with advocating child prostitution is hysterical silliness beneath the dignity of a responsible adult with the franchise.

    Somewhat less pernicious is the attempted discrediting of an idea by association (e.g. with Murray Rothbard). We should, of course, be discerning about welcoming someone too much into our counsels when that person lacks good judgment in choosing his other associations.

    But that’s a matter for extremely bad associations, don’t you think? An association with an organization launched by Rothbard, however mistaken some of Rothbard’s opinions are (e.g. on abortion), shouldn’t disqualify Mr. Tucker from polite company as if he were a member of the KKK or the Communist Party!

    And in any event, the main issue here is whether the idea has merit. Mr. Tucker has raised a proposal. It’d be better to discuss that proposal without this static, this background noise, involving The Ludwig von Mises Institute.

    I think Zoe, true to character, takes a more reasoned line: Willing to listen, but raising concerns.

    For myself, I think that existing laws unnecessarily and arbitrarily limit the good use of liberty: Mr. Tucker and other posters have raised examples sufficient to make that case.

    But I also think that a wholesale abandonment of restrictions (such that it was not illegal for eight-year-olds to work six hours a day) could result in Dickensian nightmares.

    So a moderate line seems called for: Permit a child to work gainfully one hour per day per year of age above eleven, with parental consent, and provisions to ensure that his/her edication is not thereby disrupted, et cetera.

    Think that’s too much? Or too little? Fine! Say why. Offer counter-proposals. That’s reasoned deliberation.

    The other manner of reaction just generates too much heat with too little light.

  • georgie-ann

    the thought that comes to me is that a safe social network, probably more characteristic of days gone by, is somewhat crucial to the secure and proper outcomes/experiences of “re-allowing” child labor,…

    i have often thought that the luckiest children in the world are those who grow up on a functioning farm, and just naturally “fall in” at their own level of growth, capacity, understanding and ability with participation in the on-going work cycles of farm life,…and the safety and security of being in the supervised, caring situation of family oversight is a super-big plus as well,…

    considering the difficulty that educators now have simply maintaining order in classrooms, and the high percentages of “children” coming from relatively “disordered” backgrounds, and the less trustworthy “adults” that this deranged culture has spawned: all these things would give me “pause” about approaching this question too simplisticly,…

    certainly the “state” gives itself way too much “power” over the family and parental rights to direct the course of their children’s lives and development,…definitely agree,…

    certainly too many precious and opportune moments are currently lost/wasted in developing children’s lives,…the lazy, passive, inept, arrogant product becomes more trouble to handle than it too often seems to be worth,…

    even a stint in the military (whether or not one is militarily inclined) was–in the “old days”–often acknowledged to be a useful “right of passage” for some, to help make the transition from idle, self-indulgent, “spoiled” childhood into a responsible form of adulthood,…

    i do think we need a new paradigm,…

  • VR

    Like guy, I went to work early. I worked in construction when was 14 (and big for my age), and I worked on a farm in summers. I also worked after school when I was in high school. As a result, I bought my own car when I was 16 so I could commute to my catholic high school and I looked at this as normal. Nobody thought it was strange back then (I’m older than guy). As a matter of fact, my peers envied me for having a job and money back then, and my parents encouraged me.

  • Bill H


    I’ll begin by saying that I don’t think that Mr. Tucker’s association with the Von Mises Institute is merely incidental to the ideas that he is arguing (I say “ideas” in the plural, because he has had more than one article posted here in the last week). He is not merely a member of or contributor to the Institute, but an editor for the Institute’s publications and website, and, indeed, it is how he is identified above. One could easily have identified him as a Catholic sacred music scholar (which I know he is) and an editor of “Sacred Music” (which I believe he also is). Indeed, while the latter would seem to be more generally relevant to a Catholic website, it was chosen to identify him by the first position. So someone (whether it was him or the editors of this website) found this association relevant to the article. Therefore, I will take it to be relevant as well.

    As mentioned above, he is not merely an associate of the Institute, but an editor of its websites and publications. Therefore, he is actively engaged in the promotion of its views. And the Institute has specific views that it is attempting to promote:

    “It is the mission of the Mises Institute to place human choice at the center of economic theory, to encourage a revival of critical historical research, and to advance the Misesian tradition of thought through the defense of the market economy, private property, sound money, and peaceful international relations, while opposing government intervention as economically and socially destructive.” (From the “about” section of their website)

    Now, as far as first principles go, the first thing highlighted above is that they wish “to place human choice at the center of economic theory.” In Austrian Economics, all value is derived from human choices made in the context of a market economy. This is one of their first principles. They do not merely claim that the market has instrumental value as a good allocation mechanism, or even as a potential check against authoritarianism, but that voluntary market exchanges are the sole criterion by which the value of something can be determined. Nothing has an intrinsic value, and people have no positive obligations towards anything (or anyone) that they do not freely contract an obligation to. If you search the site, this theme comes up over again and again, so I feel confident classifying this as one of the first principles of the Institute. This principle is in direct contradiction to the Catholic principle that all human beings have intrinsic worth by virtue of the fact that they are created in the image of God, and not merely by virtue of being wanted.

    This contractarian approach to ethics pretty obviously leads to Rothbard’s position on abortion — I have no obligation to carry a baby to term if I do not wish to do so. It also pretty obviously leads to the position outlined in the article:

    “If the state can dictate to parents and kids the terms under which teens can be paid, there is essentially nothing they cannot control. There is no sense in arguing about the details of the law. The critical question concerns the locus of decision-making: family or state? Private markets or the public sector?”

    Either/or. ANY positive obligations imposed on parents to raise their children in a certain way is a step towards authoritarianism. “There is no sense in arguing about the details of the law.” Child labor laws are, in his view, not merely imprudent. The fact that society has imposed a positive obligation on parents at all with respect to their children is in itself authoritarianism. Such a position can be used to justify (or at least permit) either abortion, negligent infanticide, or unlimited child labor. Justifications of all of these can be found in the chapter written by Murray Rothbard that I linked to as Mr. Tucker’s website.

    Mr. Tucker’s article makes some reasonable empirical claims about the benefits of moderate amounts of work for children (indeed, as a teacher, I share his concerns about the lack of a work-ethic in the current generation). That’s fine as far as it goes — if the argument is that paid work may help as a component in the child’s development as a person, I have little to object to in principle. But the passage highlighted above betrays a disposition to an extreme libertarianism which can be used to excuse all manner of violations of human dignity.

    Therefore, I question the first principles from which it appears that Mr. Tucker has derived his argument, and in particular whether or not they are compatible with a Catholic view of the person and society. This does not, in itself, not invalidate the position that child labor laws ought to be loosened. However, it does lead me to question the promotion of Mr. Tucker’s work on economics (and work done by followers of the Rothbardian strain of the Austrian School more generally) on this site.

  • I am not Spartacus

    Lew Rockwell’s Site has recently published an exchange of views that may well interest those who think The Austrian School is incompatible with Catholic Social Doctrine.

  • I am not Spartacus

    If only that were true.

    But, give ’em time.

    Many of those right wing loonies are attached to the recently restored Extraordinary Rite. And I have seen them come to Mass trailing behind them, or herding before them, whole bunches of lil’ children.


  • Bill H

    In retrospect, I think that the last bit of what I said was too harsh. There may be a useful debate to be had among Catholics about what bits of the Austrian School are useful. However, I am opposed to an uncritical acceptance, which seemed to be the direction that a lot of the comments were heading.

  • theorist

    “It is the mission of the Mises Institute to place human choice at the center of economic theory, to encourage a revival of critical historical research, and to advance the Misesian tradition of thought through the defense of the market economy, private property, sound money, and peaceful international relations, while opposing government intervention as economically and socially destructive.” (From the “about” section of their website)

    The meaning of this paragraph is uncontroversial to a catholic.

    It is translated as this: The Mises Inst.emphasizes that human action is the essence of economics and the inst. wants to defend some certain moral conclusions that may or may not follow from this fact.

    When someone proposes to buy something it necessarily supposes that he chose to do that over anyother thing. This is what is meant by “putting human choice at the heart of economics”. That free choice necessarily leads to what people associatate as the “free market” (large smoke-stacks, big cities, dirty kids beaten unmercilessly by their tophatted masters) is more of an empirical or inductive conclusion and is not at all a necessary condition for being an austrian. But whatever a free market looks like, ethically it can be chosen or not but this ethical choice is not connected with the austrian economics.

    Also, I conjecture from some research that the state did restrict the rights of labour (supreme court eliminated the right to strike) and it probably took away the liability for mistreating them -as in england where laws were established that basically excused violent employers.

  • Scott Henderson

    Your article is seriously flawed just like Zoe and others have pointed out. Any lack of responsibility or work ethic in today’s youth lies with the parents, not the Governments Child labor laws. When I was a youth and summer rolled around my Dad had a list a mile long that included painting projects, lawn maintenance and cleanup tasks. This went along with routine school day activities of shoveling snow, cleaning up my room, and taking out the garbage. I was too busy to get into any kind of real trouble. I also observed my father working in excess of 75hours a week. The respect I have for him was reflected in the hours I saw him put in. There were no handouts of $$$ or demands that I needed a new pair of shoes to fit in at school. All my brothers and I were not allowed to own cars even if we saved and purchased them ourselves. My Dad’s rule was if you can afford a car you can pay your own rent! I look across the street in my neighborhood now and see a 15-16year old youth driving a full size Chevy pickup just like the one his Dad drives. The breakdown in Societies work ethics has evolved from 2 generations of youth having everything they ever wanted without lifting a finger. You want your kids to have good work ethics then I suggest you hand them a rake or shovel this weekend and get them going on some routine chores or projects around the house. There is also no rule or law preventing them from performing community service.

  • theorist

    If there is going to be a law restricting kids from labor they will have to leave that line of work.

    If they leave that line of work they will have to go to another line of work.

    So assuming child labor laws are effective…

    And there is always a limited amount of that type of work,

    Then obviously some kids are going to do the next most valuable thing with their time (hanging out with friends).

    Of course you can make them do chores but the fact remains, you can’t get them into work before a certain age.