How politics follows social change, and doesn't lead it.
Politicians frequently have the courage to ban a dying practice, but only when it is on its deathbed. Of course, for centuries later they will continue to claim that it was legislative fiat that killed the practice and proof that their interventions are thus proper and necessary.
Child labor was not created by the capitalists as a means to exploit the working classes, contrary to the deluded history of Marxists. Child labor was widespread and rampant in the millenniums prior to the first capitalist-owned factory. The work was different, but the expectation that children would work, was common. Even today in peasant farming communities children are put to work in the fields the moment they can do anything useful.
The reason for child labor was simple: the productivity of any single laborer was relatively low, making it difficult for families to survive without every member of the family laboring for the food they needed. In pre-industrial Europe standards of living were extremely low, poverty rampant and starvation not uncommon.
The introduction of new modes of production offered families a means of actually starting to make progress in their death race with poverty. The new machinery made each worker more productive and more valuable. The children who flocked to the factories, along with their mothers and fathers, didn’t leave behind some idyllic childhood, roaming green valleys and picking flowers. They left behind hunger and death.
These “free labor” child workers were watched after by their parents and for the most part their lives improved dramatically. A second class of child laborers also existed, those under the care of various government agencies, usually at the local, or parish, level. It was these parish children who were the worst off, and the worst conditions described in relatively accurate, though exaggerated, tracts of the day were descriptions of the parish children—that is those children whose labor was being exploited by the local government. With bureaucrats, not parents, watching out for them, these children did have brutish and nasty lives.
As capital was invested in new production techniques the value of individual workers rose substantially. During this period there were steady and strong improvements in the standard of living of all working people. As wages rose, the ability of parents to care for their families, through their own wages alone, became more prevalent and the number of children working alongside parents declined. Increased productivity pushed up wages and the higher wages made child labor unnecessary. By the time the politicians got around to banning child labor the practice was no longer widely practiced. Had it been, it is unlikely the political classes would have banned it.
One unfortunate result of the labor laws that were passed, and which still exist today, is that young people find it difficult to secure employment. Part-time work is possible under certain conditions, but teens, who leave school for one reason or another, find it difficult to find full-time employment. Young people who are forced to leave violent and abusive homes find themselves on the streets with few legal options open to them. One result is that many teens turn to less than legal methods to earn a living—sometimes drug dealing and sometimes prostitution, as two examples.
In the zeal to abolish a practice that had largely died out already, legislation created legal straightjackets for young workers. The restrictions are so onerous that many young people needing full-time employment are forced into illegal occupations where “working conditions” are far more dangerous than from what the legislation was meant to save them.
Consider the matter of apartheid in South Africa. By the time apartheid was officially repealed it had already been dead.
Apartheid was itself a web of regulations and laws restricting voluntary markets in order to force a result that the central planners didn’t deem possible without coercion. That result was not just segregation of whites from blacks, but the reservation of particular occupations to white workers, or more accurately to Afrikaner workers. Apartheid was seen by its architects as a temporary system of racial preferences necessary to end the problem of “poor whiteism.” Of course, with the normal nature of bureaucratic expansionism it evolved into a system that was much more than this, and much worse.
Throughout the history of apartheid, legislation was used to force results into the marketplace. Companies that hired black workers were punished. This didn’t end them from hiring black workers, but it made it much more difficult. The trade unions in South Africa, including those backed by the Communist Party, were explicitly racist. And during the ill-fated Rand Rebellion of 1922 these workers marched through the streets of Johannesburg carrying signs saying: “Workers of the World Unite and Keep South Africa White.” Note: If you look carefully in the lower left of the photo you can see this sign being carried by the revolutionary unionists during the rebellion.
Prior to the election of the first clearly “apartheid” Nationalist government in 1948, earlier attempts at government-mandated racism were being pushed by the Communist dominated trade unions. The Mines and Work Act created job reservations for whites in 1923. But these laws were soon replaced with other pieces of legislation doing the same thing. Following the Rand Rebellion, a coalition government of the communist-dominated Labour Party and the white, racialist Nationalist Party came to power.
The enemy of this system was a class of men despised by the unionists and the nationalists alike: entrepreneurs and businessmen. The business classes in South Africa were primarily made of two minorities: individuals of English descent and Jews. And the Nationalist Party despised both. Virtually all the architects of apartheid were open haters of capitalism and free markets and immediately set about to politicize markets. The purpose was simple: excluding rural blacks from moving to the cities kept wages higher in the cities, benefiting trade unionists, and it suppressed wages for farm workers, benefiting Afrikaner farmers who were the backbone of the National Party. Together these two groups politicized the marketplace in order to transfer wealth from two despised classes—businessmen and blacks—to their supporters, farmers and unionists.
By the time I first visited South Africa, well before the release of Mandela and the end of apartheid, economic reality has already eroded the laws to a large extent. The Group Areas Act, which restricted where the races could live, had collapsed and “grey” areas were thriving. Blacks were flocking to the city, begging employers to “exploit” them at double the wages they would received in the homelands—that is if they were lucky enough to find employment there. With many Afrikaners having escaped the government-created jobs and becoming businessmen themselves, the pressure was on to loosen the laws that restricted labor supplies.
When Nelson Mandela walked out of prison the laws creating apartheid were still on the books, but the actual practice of apartheid had died long before. When these laws were repealed officially they had already been repealed unofficially throughout the country, by the natural forces of marketplace transactions. (Merle Lipton’s book Capitalism and Apartheid: 1910-1986 is a must read for this history.)
Jim Crow and the Civil Rights Act
In light of the recent debate about the Civil Rights Act, and whether or not it was necessary to ban private discrimination, this sort of history has some relevance. Based on what I’ve said it could be assumed that the Civil Rights Act didn’t create the change, as the modern Left claims, but was a result of a change that already taken place. Is that true?
Ilya Somin, points out the evidence that Americans had already changed their views on race by the time the Civil Rights Act was passed. He writes:
The Civil Rights Act was enacted in 1964 because “the thinking of the white portion of the country” had already changed over the previous 20–30 years. As Howard Schuman and his coauthors document in their comprehensive book Racial Attitudes in America, there was an enormous liberalization in white opinion on race from the 1940s to the 1960s. By 1963, one year before the enactment of the Civil Rights Act, 85% of whites polled in a National Opinion Research Center survey endorsed the view that “Negroes should have as good a chance to get any kind of job” and rejected the position that “white people should have the first chance at any kind of job” (endorsed by only 15%). This contrasts with 55% who said that “white people should have the first chance” on the same question in 1942 and 51% who said so in 1944.Somin is correct that violence against businesses that integrated was a possibility but it should also be noted that such violence indicates a failure of the state to fulfill its primary function: the protection of the life, liberty and property of the citizens. Discrimination existed because government in the South actively intervened in the marketplace to secure results that the politicians felt would not be possible without that intervention: in this case segregation. And for integration to fail to evolve it was necessary for government to turn a blind eye when it came to protecting the rights of businesses to act in a non-discriminatory way. For instance, Southern Streetcar companies actively fought racial segregation of their customers. Like the businessmen in South Africa, these companies preferred to act in a manner far less discriminatory than the politicians wanted.
Similarly, 73% whites questioned in a 1963 NORC poll embraced the view that “Negroes should have the right to use the same parks, restaurants, and hotels, as white people.” The same 1963 study also showed that 79% of whites rejected the idea that transportation in streetcars and buses should be segregated, compared to 54% who had endorsed it in 1942 (both the 1942 and 1963 questions used the same wording). The 1963 figures probably overstate the actual degree of white support for integration and equal opportunity. But it’s hard to avoid the conclusion that white opinion had moved strongly in an integrationist direction relative to previous years, and that discrimination against blacks in employment and public accommodations was opposed by a majority of white voters by 1964.
Schuman and his coauthors show that white racial attitudes continued to move in a more liberal direction after 1964. But the enactment of the Civil Rights Act does not seem to have accelerated the pace of change.
None of this means that the Civil Rights Act was insignificant. Although national white opinion was generally favorable to integration by 1964, southern whites were still much more hostile. Moreover, southern businesses that wanted to employ black workers on an equal basis with whites and/or serve black customers in an integrated setting were often prevented from doing so by state law and government and private violence. On these fronts, the Act really did make a major positive difference. The South probably would not have desegregated anywhere near as fast without it.
To secure segregation Southern politicians actively politicized the labor market, without that intervention they would have found their segregationist cause severely hampered.
On unfortunate result of this debate is that everyone is concentrating on the aspect of the Civil Rights Act that criminalized private discrimination, as if that was the main thrust of the law. In reality the Civil Rights Act, for the most part, was a massive roll-back in governmental power. Law professor Richard Epstein wrote:
The primary feature of the Civil Rights Act was the removal of the formal barriers to entry that had been erected by the Jim Crow legislation. At this point the historical evidence tells a libertarian story, not a government intervention story. …The successes of the civil rights movement derived from the shrinkage, not the expansion of total government power, both state and federal.The Civil Rights Act abolished the web of laws which Southern racists had erected in order to force people to act as if they were racists, whether or not they were.
We can again turn to one active civil rights struggle in America today—that of marriage equality for gay couples. A handful of states have ended the discrimination that existed against gay couples. But throughout the country private businesses have granted equal benefits to gay employees and their spouses—whether or not the law requires such things. The roadblock to marriage equality is NOT the private sector but the governmental sector.
Not only do laws exist which explicitly forbid the recognition of same-sex marriages but the legal system often interferes with private decisions to recognize such relationships, at least on equal terms. No private policy can remove the differential tax rates at which gay couples are taxed, nor can such policies remove the discrimination inherent in the social security system, US immigration laws, or other similar areas.
These policies will change, but they will change after the public has changed. As we already saw public opinion has shifted dramatically on this issue, and I suspect that shift will continue as the opponents to equality tend to be old and the old die out. In addition opponents tend to be strong Christians and religion, Christianity in particular, is also on the decline in the United States. This means that many of the young aren’t joining sects that would encourage them to be prejudiced.
So, reform is possible. But history seems to show that political reform rarely tips the social scales. Politicians rarely lead, they look for the trends and then try to jump in front of them, only at the last minute, and then claim credit for shifts that had already taken place. In reality, they do very little to change society, and in each of these areas the political classes actively worked to prevent the change that had taken place without them.