Grant McDermott bio photo

Grant McDermott

Assistant Professor
Dept. of Economics
University of Oregon

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In the comments thread of the Meat and Veg(etarianism) post, I drew a parallel between the ethical treatment of animals and the banning of child labour. That is both involved society making a collective decision about the appropriate regulations rather than simply leaving it up to individuals to decide upon the standards themselves. The exact quote, if you're interested, was: "[L]ike many cases, I actually think that the decent treatment of living creatures is a social good deserving the requisite levels of public discourse and debate. Similarly, we have not outlawed child labour in modernised countries because it is unprofitable to firm owners, but because it is morally repugnant."

By coincidence then, here is something I happened to read last night in David Landes' masterful The Wealth and Poverty of NationsProviding some afterthought on the industrialization of Japan and other countries (pp 381-383), Landes writes:
  The traditional account of Japan's successful and rapid industrialization rings with praise[...] It is a good, even edifying story. Yet one aspect of the Japanese achievement has not caught the attention of celebratory historians: the pain and labor that made it possible. The record of early industrialization is invariably one of hard work for low pay, to say nothing of exploitation. I use this last word, not in the Marxist sense of paying labor less than its product (how else would capital receive its reward?), but in the meaningful sense of compelling labor from people who cannot say no; so, from women and children, slaves and quasi-slaves (involuntary indentured labor). The literature of the British Industrial Revolution, for example, is full of tales of abuse[...]


  The most common ailment of these wretchedly unhappy children  [sent to work in the textile mills, coal mines and so on] was a nervous stomach. Small wonder that many fell victim to sexual predators and went on to prostitution. It seemed a promotion. 


  The high social costs of British industrialization reflect the shock of unpreparedness and the strange notion that wages and conditions of labor came from a voluntary agreement between free agents. Not until the British got over these illusions, in regard first to children, then to women, did they intervene in the work place and introduce protected labor legislation. [...]


  The European countries that followed England on the path of modern industry had their own labor problems and scandals, though less serious, largely because they had had warning and were able to introduce protections by anticipation.
Remember, this from arguably the foremost economic historian of recent times and in a book that was, among other things, praised for "unashamedly bang[ing] the drum for the liberal ideals of freedom, hard work and open markets" by the FT and a score of other reviewers. Your dyed-in-red, protectionist, trade-unionist Landes is not. (His snipe at the Marxist conception of "exploitation" direct evidence of this.) Yet his views on the dangers of unfettered industrialism (capitalism?) are laid out quite succinctly above. Like him, I believe that history clearly shows there to be asymmetries of power and information in economic relationships which warrant the protection of certain parts of our society.

"But the one on the left looks happy!"

As an afterthought on the paragraph highlighted above ("the strange notion that wages and the conditions of labor came from a voluntary agreement between free agents"), this is surely analogous to cases of domestic violence. We don't stand idly by while women (or men) suffer abuse at the hands of their partners on the flimsy defense that they are engaged in a relationship of their own accord. Instead, we actively support them through protective structures (legal and police enforcement) that are decided upon and borne by society as a whole because that is the only morally just course of action.