Some assert that the reasons for slavery were non-economic, at least in part. Perhaps the obvious culprit, racism, is also the driving force behind exploitation, and the enormous economic benefits derived therefrom were merely coincidental. But in the example of child labor, we see a universal theme emerge irrefutably: people are driven by economics to do even unspeakable things. Child labor also provides a shining example of the need for regulation in the private sector. American families decided for purely financial reasons to expose their children, helpless and dependent, to hard and prolonged labor. This labor, which included every kind of dangerous and physically demanding activity, regularly resulted in premature death or devastating injury.
In the United States, child labor first appeared late in the 18th century. As can be expected, children of poor parents and recent immigrants were the most affected by this practice, which grew rapidly from 1870 until 1911. According to the US Department of Labor Library,
In 1870, the first U.S. census to report child labor numbers counted 750,000 workers under the age of 15, not including children who worked for their families in businesses or on farms. By 1911, more than two million American children under the age of 16 were working - many of them 12 hours or more, six days a week. Often they toiled in unhealthful and hazardous conditions; always for minuscule wages.
It is worth noting that it appears that child labor seems to have accelerated sharply in the years following the Civil War. It took America about a century to force 750,000 children into work, but only another forty to force an additional 1.25 million. That said, industrialization was an obvious force working in the same direction. So, the connection may be nothing more than mere coincidence, and it is not a point that I wish to assert with any force in any event. Despite mounting public outrage at the practice, it was not outlawed until 1938. Even then, however, child labor was merely dealt a blow. The underlying motivations and causes for it have not gone away, and even today, there are abundant sweatshops in America filled with children. Around the world, this practice flourishes, with stories of female children being sold into sex slavery rampant throughout the US, Europe, Asia and Africa.
Child labor gives us an important lesson on the consequences of unchecked economic self-interest. No misguided assertions about the barbarism or inferiority of another race are necessary to justify the practice of child labor. This is a matter of parents mortgaging their own children's futures, not someone else's. The implication of the rise and prevalence of child labor, even in the "developed" world is that what is behind forced labor and economic oppression is not any mythology about a hierarchy of races, but a simple formula: might makes right. Any time any entity can be compelled to be used to the benefit of a stronger entity, it will be thusly compelled, unless an entity still more powerful is brought in to stop it from doing so.
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