Zoolander Economics: Child Labor

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Zoolander is a funny movie. It’s quotable. It’s memorable. I consider it to be one of the best comedies of the 2000s. But it displays zero economic understanding.

I know what you might be thinking. “Why are you ruining something funny by making it into something boring and uninteresting?” This is what I pride myself in: poking holes in fun, nostalgic memories. Call me Ishmael.

The plot of Zoolander concerns the planned assassination of the Malaysian Prime Minister due to his looming ban on child labor in Malaysia; this angers the fashion mafia due to rising labor costs, inspiring them to take on a hit on the PM. In the movie, the Malay PM’s legislation is shown to be wildly celebrated by the people of Malaysia, whose children are finally free from the backbreaking yoke of sweatshop labor. He is depicted a savior among men, a worldwide beacon of humanity and good government.

This reflects the Western view of child labor. It is considered indefensible by the West. Anyone who would even consider hiring a child is depicted as a cold-hearted, greedy robber baron eager to make a buck off the sweet yet salty tears of young children. Surely, no decent human being would ever do such a thing to a poor, innocent child.

The problem is this: people do not consider the alternatives. They act as if the question of child labor is a black and white dichotomy between working in a sweatshop or laughing and playing in a field with friends all day long. If life were really this simple, problems would be a lot easier to solve.

But life isn’t that simple. We live in an analog world of varying alternatives. Every second of every day, whether consciously or subconsciously, we are weighing and choosing courses of action. We make selections based against alternatives. I could go outside and smack the first person I see; conversely, I can stay inside and play Super Mario. I will elect to play Super Mario. Hitting strangers will get me arrested and tossed in the clink. I am selecting Super Mario over the alternative.

A major question of importance in economic discussion is this: “…Compared to what?” This is the basis of the classic joke: “How’s your wife?” “Compared to what?” In matters of economics, we are talking about real people who make real choices. To do this, they must make comparisons between courses of action.

This question can be easily applied to child labor. A small modification can make it even more relevant: “Compared to what?” becomes “What’s the alternative?” I have never heard a proponent of banning child labor ask this question, even though it is vitally important to ask.

When discussing child labor, the first hurdle to cross is the question of the kid’s willingness to work. Is the kid there of his own free will or not? Is he or she being forced to work at gunpoint, or perhaps by extortion? If the kid is being forced to work against his or her will, then they are enslaved, which is illegitimate. If the kid has been enslaved to work, then the issue of child labor itself is irrelevant; it is the slavery aspect that immediately disqualifies this.

But if the kid is not being forced to come into work, then they are not enslaved. Presumably, that means they are working of their own free will. So the question now needs to be asked: Why would this child voluntarily come into work every day, rather than pursue the alternative? There must be some incentive at work here. Something brings this kid back day after day. What is it?

The answer to this is obvious: money. The kid comes back day after day because he or she wants the money. In the kind of destitute third-world nations that frequently see child labor, like Bangladesh and Myanmar, this makes perfect sense. These kids need the money to live. I am not sure what the statistics regarding child poverty and starvation are in these places, but I can assure you they are far higher than anything seen anywhere in the West. Oftentimes, these kids do not have the same luxury of living off parental income as do kids in the West; they need to work to survive, or at least to help support their loved ones.

So, one of the alternatives to working in a factory is to not work at all. In other words, one of the alternatives is to simply starve to death. It is a less than wonderful alternative, to say the least.

Let’s think about Zoolander again for a moment. Let’s say that life imitates art and the leader of Bangladesh one day outlaws child labor entirely. Nobody under the age of 16 will be allowed to work, period. What will happen to all those kids in the factories? Will this be their grand unshackling? Will they all spend their newfound unemployment at pleasant day schools, or at least playing games in the park with their friends?

I sincerely doubt that. Let us consider what is more likely: these kids, out of necessity to avoid starving to death, will find illegal work to make money and stay alive. Some lucky kids will probably manage to work under-the-table and for less money in order to retain the privilege – the privilege! – of working in the factory. The other kids will probably be reduced to one of the following, in no particular order: drug-running, drug-dealing, child prostitution, begging, scavenging for scrap, working petty jobs for criminals, pickpocketing, burglary, beating up other kids for money… I could continue. But you get the idea. The alternatives that they chose the factory over sound far more dangerous and unhealthy, which is why they probably opted for factory work in the first place.

The bottom line is this: living a cushy and comfortable life ain’t really an option. I’m not sure if hardcore anti-child labor activists ever think about this. Do they think that Bangladeshi kids in factories are simply being deprived of the kind of childhood we get in the West because of the capitalist fatcats running the factories? For many of the kids working in factories, the opposite is true: the capitalist fatcats who hire them may be one of the only things standing between the child and a rough life selling their bodies for sex on the street.

That makes the fatcats sound pretty heroic. Chances are, many of them aren’t very heroic. I don’t doubt that most of the factory owners who employ children are far from heroic guardians looking out for the children, but rather are looking to make a buck in the cheapest way possible by hiring kids. But that is part of the beauty of the free market: it allows people to help each other by making mutually beneficial deals. The fatcat might pass up the child beggar on the street. But if he or she is willing to make a mutually beneficial deal with a kid who is willing to work, then this fatcat is providing a service just as much as the child is.

I don’t want kids to have to work any less than you do. If all the little children of the world could simply go to school and play childhood games all day, that would be great. But life isn’t this easy. A carefree and effortless childhood is a luxury for those who have saved sufficient capital to earn it for their children. I have said the same thing about independent retirement without imposing on children or grandchildren; it is a luxury for those who have studiously saved enough capital. The West, in general, has accumulated a great deal of capital; this has allowed most kids in the West to afford not having to work. This has allowed many old folks to retire without relying on kids or grandkids, which is definitely a new paradigm in humanity.

Most third-world nations have not yet accumulated this kind of capital. Most third-world nations worldwide are still dealing with the aftereffects of Cold War socialism, a society hostile to the free market, or societies rife with violence and tension. Some countries have all three at work. These are nations where, unfortunately, there is not sufficient capital accumulated to allow kids to live a carefree existence.

It is not a question of what you want kids in third-world countries to do. It is a question of what they must do to survive. Telling them that they cannot work is going to do little to help them survive, or climb their way out of poverty.

Life isn’t fair. It sucks that a kid in Bangladesh might have to work in a factory while a kid in America can play video games all day. But for the kid in Bangladesh, what is the alternative? Once again, it’s not about what you want; it’s about what they need.

CONCLUSION

Wanting to help kids living in poverty is noble. If you want to help, then donate to charity. Send clothes and food. Send a kid a laptop with satellite internet and a subscription to the Khan Academy. Adopt a kid, if you feel that strongly. Do what you need to do. But if you think outlawing a poor child’s ability to make money in a relatively safe and consistent manner is going to help them, think again. They’re being screwed, not helped. If I were a kid, I’d take 8 hours in a factory over 8 hours selling sex for money any day of the week.

Child labor is another perfect example of how good intentions do not always equal good results. I don’t doubt that child labor-law activists have only the best intentions at heart. But there’s more to life than just being really, really, really ridiculously good-intentioned.

If a well-intentioned anti-child labor activist really wants to help poor kids in third-world countries, dedicating their own time and money will do far more than banning child labor ever will.

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