It’s that time of year again when the Girl Scouts are going door-to-door and setting up shop outside of supermarkets to sell you those colorful little boxes of reconstituted butter and sugar. It’s Girl Scout cookie season, I mean, which—according to the Girl Scouts of America—is the time of year when the young women of the Girl Scouts learn “goal setting, decision making, money management, people skills, and business ethics.”
The Girl Scout cookie program, in other words, teaches young girls how to be entrepreneurs; it teaches them how to work. It is, after a fashion, child labor. The great scandal is not that the Girl Scouts are promoting child labor, it’s that there isn’t more child labor in the United States today.
When one says the words “child labor,” of course, one immediately thinks of the crushing 14-hour textile-style jobs, pictures of which one usually sees in middle school history textbooks. Surely young children are better off when they are not required to labor under such working conditions.
Yet the federal government—never to be outdone at overreach—has gone several steps further further and proscribed virtually every meaningful kind of occupation for children younger than 14: “any manufacturing occupation,” “most processing occupations,” “all work requiring the use of ladders, scaffolds or their substitutes,” “outside window washing,” and apparently hundreds of other types of jobs (such as “occupations in connection with…communications and public utilities”).
Don’t Pass Laws, Increase Wealth
We set out to free our children from the marks of woe, and we ended up freeing them from the opportunity to procure any kind of practical vocational experience.
It does not have to be this way. There is no reason this baffling and ridiculous slate of prohibitions has to exist. There is evidence, for one, that child labor laws do not really work that well at all: in India, for one, a child labor law actually led to higher rates of child labor.
This apparently contradictory outcome can be seen in child labor policies passed elsewhere: early laws of this type in the United States did little to reduce the amount of laboring children in this country. As it turns out, the greatest predictor of declining child labor is not child labor laws but rising wealth: the wealthier a country gets, the less it sends its children to work. The reason wealthy nations do not employ their children is not because they are particularly law-abiding but because, once a country’s wealth reaches a certain threshold, there’s no percentage in it.
Young People Have Skills to Offer and Lots to Learn
That is not to say that child labor laws are superfluous. Their effect is still negative, even if our country’s astonishing wealth has rendered moot the perceived efficacy of child labor. The practical effect these days of our child labor laws is to deny any enterprising young person who wants it the legal ability to have a job.
As farmer Joel Salatin points out, labor laws prevent children from using even so simple a tool as a cordless drill in the course of employment, to say nothing of the entire occupations from which children are barred by the Department of Labor. The end result of these laws is ultimately not child protection but prohibiting children from using their innate potential to earn their own money.
All of this is somewhat moot, of course, given the fact that our outdated Prussian-style compulsory education system locks up most children for eight hours each day so they might be subject to a pedagogical model that is extraordinarily efficient at wasting a lot of time. The average homeschooler can often finish his school day at a much faster rate than the average public schooler. There is a strong case to be made for abolishing compulsory education, as well—that more American children might be freed from a system that’s not working for them in favor of something that might.
None of which is to say that childhood education is meaningless (it plainly is not) or that homeschool would work for everyone (it wouldn’t) or that every young person should have a job of some kind. But in the zeal to give children healthier and happier childhoods, we have wrongly convinced ourselves that the law, not wealth, is a better determinant. As a result, we have allowed ourselves to outlaw nearly every effective kind of labor for an entire class of Americans.
This is wrong. If “goal setting, decision making, money management, people skills, and business ethics” are worthwhile pursuits for the Girl Scouts, they should be good enough for any kid who has the ability and the drive to make something of himself, even at a young age.