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The Fallacy of "Child-Labor-Free"

Mises Daily: Wednesday, October 20, 2010 by

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Child Labor Free

For those of us with artistic sensibility, the sight and feel of an original, hand-woven oriental rug is a unique experience. These artifacts are timeless in their design and quality, and their look improves with age and wear. My wife and I have a special love for the rugs of northern Morocco, called "kilims," which feature elegant and discreet geometrical designs, unlike their more extravagant Persian counterparts.

In a recent shopping adventure, in search for an addition to our kilim collection, I saw one of those quality-control seals, a "child-labor-free" certification. I must confess that I had the same type of feeling I get when a waiter assures my friends that their dish will have no MSG. But putting aside a discussion on whether the carpet dealer knows how to order some labels at Staples, we do need to address the well-meaning but erroneous tendency to boycott or ban the products of child labor.

One of the first obstacles is defining what actually constitutes child labor. What should the cutoff age be in societies where productive and reproductive life begins very early? In the little towns where these rugs are produced, teen marriage is normal even for boys. And just as it still happens in our own farming communities, helping in the family business starts extremely early. These, however, are technicalities of peripheral importance compared to the main argument, which is that the only reason our children don't have to do this type of labor is that we are wealthier, not because of our child-labor laws nor because we are somehow culturally or racially superior.

A few years ago, our family had the honor of befriending a group of ethnic Germans from the Ukraine while living in Winnipeg, in central Canada. These were some of the most gentle and loving people imaginable. Most of them, now in their golden years, had to work very hard in their childhood. I am talking long hours of farm or factory labor, barefoot and on an empty stomach until supper, which was the only meal. Europe had been devastated by the war; there was no other way.

Now, if you look at their children and grandchildren who grew up in Winnipeg, from the same ethnic group with the same values and beliefs, you see a very different story. The Canadian economic success is reflected in their luxurious childhoods.

Indeed, economic development is the precursor of all things good and humane. This sometimes even includes tangible expressions of parental love — a parent who puts a child behind a loom for ten hours a day does so, not out of callous greed, but because this is what brings food to the table.

Any ban or boycott on oriental rugs, or any other product of child labor, is utterly counterproductive and potentially life-threatening to the very people we are trying to protect. Only economic development can improve the lives of these children, and nothing short of unrestricted free trade will do.