Child Labor

Louis F. Post

[Reprinted from The Public, 16 May 1903]

One need not be familiar with the appalling details to have his wrath excited against what is known as child labor. All he need do is to imagine his own or a neighbor's child wearing its life away in the dust and racket of a coal breaker or the ceaseless din of a factory. Let his imagination seize upon the image of a real child, not the mere abstract idea which we spell c-h-i-l-d, but a little boy or girl with whom he is personally acquainted, whose features he recognizes in his mind's eye, and whose name he recalls with affectionate emotions -- let him associate that image with a perpetual round of nerve-racking drudgery, and his education against child labor will be instantly complete.

No sane man or woman could bear the thought of turning their own baby friends into factory machines, no matter how proud they might be of the resulting commercial "prosperity." At such a cost commercial "prosperity" is all too dear. But what difference does it make if the immolated children happen to be some one else's instead of ours? They are nevertheless as human, and their suffering is as great as the suffering of our own would be.

Moreover, our civilization is to be tested in this respect not by the care that well-to-do parents give their children, but by its child life as a whole; and by that test how terrible is the indictment against it? No wonder the horrors of Moloch, the child-consuming god of the ancients, and of Ganges, the child-engulfing river of the Hindus, are recalled to illustrate the child-devouring "prosperity" of our own civilized time and Christian country.

Child labor is child sacrifice. No heathen rites, however wretched or cruel, for the pacification of vindictive gods, can be much more revolting to a reflecting mind than the destruction of the innocents for the profit of commercial promoters in this Christian land. Let me not be understood as opposing labor by children. Children are benefitted by laboring. Every child, from the time it begins to play intelligently, should have responsible labors to perform. That is the natural way of developing physical skill and moral sensibility. But child labor, as the term is used, does not describe the wholesome normal tasks of childhood. It describes instead the drudgery of a monotonous toil which stunts the body and compresses the mind, which fatigues beyond endurance and degrades without compunction while it kills without mercy.

There should be no question about dealing instantly with such an outrage upon the children of our time and country. Even paternal laws, such as repressive acts against child labor undoubtedly are, may be tolerated as a temporary expedient for the sake of children whose rights are momentarily in deadly peril.

True, it is to be borne in mind at all times that the child labor iniquity is a natural result of an iniquitous institution more fundamental. If heaven were monopolized, there would be child labor or something oppressive quite akin to it in heaven itself; and it is unavoidable on earth so long as the earth is monopolized. Child labor is an evil without roots of its own. It is simply one of the manifestations of that social and industrial life which has its roots in land monopoly. This fundamental wrong would manifest itself in other ways if child labor were effectively prohibited. A fundamental social wrong is like migratory rheumatism. If, by local treatment you subdue its manifestations in one place, you hardly have time to realize the relief before you are aware of them in another place. The only remedy for such industrial evils as child labor must be radical. It must be one that goes to the root. It must not merely allay, it must eradicate. And the root whence all such evils as child labor draw their sustenance is land monopoly. Abolish land monopoly and you abolish child labor, and only so. For, after all, it is the pressing needs of disinherited and impoverished parents, rather than the greed of factory owners, that make child labor possible. Where is the well-to-do family from which a single child has ever been dragged by capitalistic greed into factory service? Restore to parents full freedom to raise themselves above want and fear of want, and you can better trust the parental instinct than the instinct of a State official, to protect the rights of children.

But with the potency of the parental instinct checked by an institution the destructive nature of which cannot be widely enough exposed to the public understanding to be uprooted in this generation, and with whole armies of children consequently deprived of the most elementary rights of childhood, immediate relief is demanded. Even the most consistent adversary of paternal legislation may well, in such circumstances, withhold opposition while temporary laws for the protection of children are enacted and enforced.