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There are people who believe in what I call the “theory of enlightenment.” According to this theory, terrible moral outrages were the norm until a few enlightened beings pointed out the immorality of the practices. After a few protests raised the consciousness of the rest of society, laws were enacted, and utopia reigned. The theory of enlightenment is routinely applied to such things as child labor, working hours, and the second-class status of women.
What is ignored is that these practices were necessary before people had the luxury of pronouncing them immoral. Children had to work at a time in which sticks served as plows. In such an unproductive world, everyone either worked or starved. People labored long hours because they weren’t productive enough to work fewer hours and still eat. Women were less valuable than men in a violent world where brute strength was often a matter of life and death.
These realities were not changed by waving banners in street demonstrations. They were changed by the vast gains in productivity brought by free individuals, private property, freedom of contract, and a system of profit-and-loss all operating within a rule-of-law framework.
Child labor laws weren’t enacted in the United States until they were largely unnecessary because relatively few children were working. When child labor laws were passed in countries like India, in which productivity had not yet risen sufficiently, children continued to work because the only other option was starvation. Unfortunately, with no recourse to the law, they were exploited even worse than before.
Work weeks weren’t shortened until high productivity had long made 60-hour weeks the exception. Women couldn’t compete on an equal footing with men until the Information Age made brains more important than brawn.
People who want to tear down the world that individual liberty and free markets have built might want to consider what they’d be giving up. Such thoughts could be enlightening.Published in