GOP State Legislators Want to Bring Back Child Labor

A new raft of Republican state-level proposals to re-legalize child labor are disgusting for many reasons. They certainly make our society less equal. But they also make it less free.

Child laborers in Indiana, 1908. (Lewis Wickes Hine / Library of Congress via Wikimedia Commons)

When it comes to the behavior of Republican-dominated state legislatures, very little surprises me at this point. Every few weeks, GOP lawmakers around the country find a creative new way to attack public education or make life harder for marginalized groups. It’s all disgusting. None of it is unexpected.

Resurrecting child labor, though, is a depth of grotesquery I wouldn’t have predicted in the third decade of the twentieth century. Yet here we are. A range of GOP-led states, writer Jordan Barab reports, are weighing laws to “decrease the age and increase the hours at which children could work dangerous jobs.”

That’s repugnant on many levels: Most obviously, it will lead to avoidable human suffering. It will also make our society less equal. But what matters just as much, though it might be less obvious, is that a society in which financially desperate families send their children to do dirty and dangerous jobs at younger and younger ages is also less free.

“Finding Reliable Employees”

Some of the new child labor proposals go much further than others. New Jersey’s Democratic governor, Phil Murphy, signed one raising the hours minors can work over summer break — that’s on the mild end. Iowa Republicans want to legalize meatpacking jobs for fourteen-year-olds.

Minnesota’s bill doesn’t go quite so far. But it does legalize construction work for sixteen-year-olds. The chief author, State Senator Rich Draheim, stated the rationale in terms that even a socialist novelist might hesitate to put in the mouth of a conservative villain: “Eliminating work opportunities for youth just because of their age will make it even harder for businesses to find reliable employees.”

To paraphrase only slightly: businesses need to make profits. Human beings are the tools they use to do so. It’s terribly inefficient to deny capital perfectly usable tools “just because of their age.”

Freedom and Other Socialist Values

It’s worth taking a moment to reflect on why abolishing child labor was such a historic victory for the workers’ movement — and why these retrograde proposals are so repulsive.

In a 2019 debate between progressive commentator Sam Seder and conservative Tim Pool, Pool compared Seder’s beliefs to the Marvel Cinematic Universe supervillain Thanos, who was willing to wipe out half of humanity to save the other half from overpopulation and hunger. Pool’s was an extreme example, but many people less foolish than him share the same assumption: that leftists are only motivated by utilitarian calculations about the overall amount of happiness or suffering in a given society, while caring about rights is the domain of libertarians and other right-wingers.

That’s wrong. Democratic socialists reject the libertarian theories of property rights that justify letting business owners do whatever they want to workers and society. But that doesn’t mean we don’t care about all sorts of rights — both “negative” (like the right not to be imprisoned without a fair trial) and “positive” (like the right to health care). We think someone being denied any of these rights is being treated unjustly, even if this treatment supposedly serves economic efficiency or some other “greater good.”

Even among people who do know that leftists care about rights, a common misimpression is that the Right cares about freedom, while the Left only cares about equality.

It’s true that leftists care about equality. The late Marxist philosopher G.A. Cohen argued for a view called “luck egalitarianism,” which holds that, all else being equal, a distribution of life outcomes is objectionably unequal if some people have it worse than others because of factors beyond their control. If fourteen-year-olds from middle-class families get to spend their time outside of school hanging out with their friends, watching movies, and just being kids, while fourteen-year-olds from financially strapped families have to spend their time working at a meatpacking plant, then Cohen would say the degree of social inequality is outrageous.

But child labor protections can be justified not just in terms of equality but in terms of freedom.

This might seem counterintuitive. If anything, you might think, dropping legal prohibitions against sixteen-year-olds working in construction or fourteen-year-olds working in meatpacking means an increase in freedom. After all, no one is marching high school freshmen to the doors of the meatpacking plant at gunpoint. They’re simply being allowed to take such jobs if they want them.

This objection makes sense if you think the only important kind of freedom is freedom from interference. The fourteen-year-old and the boss at the meatpacking plant both want to make a contract, and right now the state of Iowa is interfering. If the government loosens its interference, voila, we have an expansion of freedom.

Of course, you could think that noninterference freedom is the only type of freedom that matters without supporting this bill. You could argue that, while freedom for consenting adults is sacrosanct, minors need to be protected in many ways. The sexual age of consent in Iowa, for example, is sixteen. Or you could argue that workers being forced to take dangerous jobs to escape poverty are making a coerced choice — and that such coercion is particularly repugnant when it involves minors.

I suspect, however, that even some readers who share my disgust at the Iowa bill would agree that it increases noninterference freedom. They simply think that in this case the value of freedom, as important as it is, must be balanced against other important values like equality or simply the value of giving people less miserable adolescences.

And, to be clear, I agree that a straightforward consequence-based argument against child labor is very powerful. If defenders of these grotesque bills truly cared about providing extra income to poor families, they have a thousand alternate ways of doing it. Make it easier for the parents to organize unions. Raise the minimum wage. Provide direct public payments to supplement the families’ income. Don’t reverse an elemental form of social progress.

But I can’t help feeling like we’re missing one of the most important objections to child labor if we only make a utilitarian argument or even an equality-based argument against it.

Freedom From Domination

I recently saw a picture from an early-twentieth-century protest that powerfully illustrates that omission. Two young women wore sashes in Yiddish and English with the same slogan: End Child Slavery.

The way that child labor is an affront to freedom becomes clearer when we stop thinking of freedom from interference as the only, or even necessarily the most important, kind of freedom. What’s known as the “republican theory of freedom” — which has ancient roots but was extremely important to the antislavery movement and then the labor and socialist movements of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries — is the view that the most important type of freedom is freedom from domination.

The theory is “republican” in the sense of “republics” — societies in which government is the business of the citizens themselves and not of a king or emperor. Ancient Greek and Roman republicans often thought that for a class of citizens to have the requisite leisure time for political deliberation, there must be a class of slaves to perform the menial tasks. But modern antislavery republicans thought that slaveholders trained in habits of domination couldn’t be trusted to relate to other free citizens as equals — and that freedom was most meaningful when it was universal. Likewise, post–Civil War labor republicans and their socialist successors saw troubling patterns of domination in capitalist workplaces, where some people spend all day giving orders and others spend all day following them.

Which brings us back to the child-labor bills. Robbing adolescents of a period of their life they would otherwise spend learning, playing, and coming into themselves as people by sending them instead to spend their best hours on the clock, doing repetitive tasks, and taking orders from a boss is a disturbing expansion of that sphere of domination — an expansion that targets people when they’re at their most vulnerable and least capable of shaping the course of their own lives.

The proposal to send high school students to construction sites and meatpacking plants is a cruel and stupid one, a proposal to boost social inequality and human suffering. But it should also be an offense to our sensibilities as free people.

The degree of domination that capital exercises over poor and working-class people is already obscene. Let’s at least draw a line here. Don’t let them take the children.