The mills of government grind with exceeding slowness when it comes to turning out reform-measures. Indeed, it requires an enormous popular pressure to make them move at all; and when a measure designed to correct some crying evil in our social system is finally ground out into law, even then its enforcement is by no means assured. Political government offers privilege every facility for circumventing the popular will whenever it becomes inimical to the interests of privilege, as it is the business of political government to do; and the way of the reformer is by consequence hard and wearisomely repetitious. Thus, Federal laws aimed at the abolition of child-labour have twice been declared unconstitutional by Federal courts; meanwhile the economic slavery of children continues, just as the economic slavery of the expropriated masses, be they children or adults, will inevitably continue until its causes are finally known for what they are and are done away with.
There are many well-meaning people who, while they accept the social order which fosters economic slavery, have yet a horror of its manifestation in the enforced labour of children. This is perhaps due to the fact that in child-labour the cruelty of the system is dramatically apparent. The natural human instinct to protect the helpless of childhood makes people who have not dividends at stake resent any advantage being taken of the helplessness; whereas the exploitation of adults does not arouse the same feeling of pit and indignation because people, even those without dividends, are not accustomed to recognize the equal helplessness of adults in the face of the existing economic order. Then, too, as our child-welfare workers are at pains to point out, the health of the growing child may be permanently impaired and his proper physical and mental development thwarted by excessive labour at arduous tasks; while his legitimate claim to some degree of acquaintance with the three R’s is denied him when he is kept out of school in order that he may augment the family income through his labours. Indeed, the literature of the reformers of child-labour conditions, like most literature of reform, impresses one with the desire of its authors to right a lesser social evil in so far as is compatible with the careful preservation of the greater evil from which the lesser evil springs.
It is hard to discover any proper place for sentiment in this matter of child-labour. There are, as this paper sees it, two logical attitudes towards the up-bringing of children, both of which depend for justification upon the attitude which is to be taken towards life itself. If the purpose of life be hard labour for the many with excessive ease for the few, then the children of the working masses, as the labour-motors of the future, should of course be reared with proper regard to their future effectiveness as labour-motors. That is, they should not be required during their period of growth to perform labours which will incapacitate them, physically or mentally, fot their more profitable exploitation later on, when they should normally be more powerful and productive machines. Here the reformer has a logical place. Employers of child-labour, be they industrialists, or parents who use their children’s labour to assist them in their own occupations, are likely to overwork their little employees, the industrialist through short-sightedness or indifference, the parent through ignorance or necessity, or both. The reformer, by securing the passage of laws regulating the hours and conditions of child-labour, and prescribing a certain amount of compulsory “education,” may do much to correct this tendency, and thus insure a greater degree of health and a lesser degree of stupidity in that larger life of exploitation which awaits the exploited children of the poor.
But there is another, and we are inclined to believe a more legitimate conception of the purpose of life than this, namely: that life is given to us to be enjoyed; and the only true enjoyment of life consists in fulfilling the inherent law of being, which is physical, mental and spiritual growth. “The best man,” says Socrates, “is he who most tries to perfect himself, and the happiest man is he who most feels that he is perfecting himself.” If one accept this simple and logical view of goodness and happiness, then one must repudiate the economic exploitation, not of children only but also of adults, for the man whose nose is kept securely tied to the grindstone of physical necessities will have precious little leisure in which to perfect himself or to give thought to the proper development of his children. If he is obliged to work for a wage less than the amount needed to support his family, then if his children are to be adequately fed and clothed and sheltered, they must perforce be set to work at some gainful occupation, however much better it might be for them if they could play a little, or go to school. It is unfortunate, but people must eat before they can grow, and the only way they can get beyond a preoccupation with mere eating is to rid themselves of the gourmand that devours all their surplus — that is, of the land monopolist.
It is land-monopoly which, in the last analysis, makes it necessary for people to put their children to work; because land-monopoly means high rents and low wages. The connexion between land-monopoly and child-labor is especially clear, since seventy-two per cent of the child-labour in this country is agricultural and by far the greater number of that seventy-two percent of rural child-workers are the children of tenant-farmers. Because of the extortionate demandds of the landlords, the tenant-farmer is obliged to use the labour of his children in order to make ends meet; and n this connexion it is significant that tenant-framing and child-labour have both shown a very considerable increase in this country in recent years.
With the causes of child-labour thus apparent, it would seem that people who can regard with complacency such evils in our social order as starvation-wages or a “normal” unemployment-condition involving a million and a half-workers, must be either fools or knaves when they concern themselves with child-labour on anything but a strictly utilitarian basis. As for those whose enlightened love for childhood teaches them that the development and happiness of these little ones depends upon the removal of the economic disabilities which hamper all workers, their place is certainly not among the ranks of the reformers.