Free the Children

Like most economists, I suffer occasional fits of exasperation when I read editorials by otherwise intelligent people who completely misunderstand even the most basic principles of economics. You would think a publication as erudite as The New York Times would insist that its op-ed writers actually know something about a subject if they are going to write about it. Alas, apparently that’s asking too much.

The piece that offends at the moment was written by a woman who fondly recalls her own teenage babysitting experience in an unregulated market before arguing that no modern teen should be allowed to repeat it. Today’s teens, she says, should be barred from the market unless they have a minimum wage, maximum working hours, payroll taxes and even mandatory health insurance!

My own view is diametrically opposite: What we need is a completely laissez-faire labor market — no taxes, no regulations, no nanny state bureaucrats to harass the nannies — for anyone under 21 years of age, provided the child’s parents give their permission.




The biggest mistake noneconomists make in thinking about the labor market is the failure to realize that most people most of the time get paid what they’re worth. That is, their wages reflect the value of what they produce. Piling on taxes, mandated benefits and other restrictions does not make anyone more productive. At the low end of the market, these burdens are likely to price people out of the market altogether. But if they do manage to find work, it will be at a much lower wage, as taxes and mandatory benefits substitute for cash compensation.

The second thing that noneconomists (and even many economists) fail to understand is that the wage paid to teenagers is the least important aspect of teen labor. What’s far more important is a skill set that is not likely to be learned elsewhere: the importance of showing up for work, being on time, following instructions and interacting with coworkers and superiors in a civil manner.

(Have you ever wondered why many summer interns work for free? It’s because the things they learn are more valuable than the forgone wages. Yet, as previously reported, New York is pulling out all the stops to end such violations of its labor law.)

An unskilled teenage girl is not worth very much as a babysitter. She’s not a nurse. She doesn’t have a teaching certificate. She really doesn’t have many skills at all. So, nobody is going to pay very much for her babysitting services — probably not even the minimum wage. But pricing her out of the market and making it impossible for her to work has major social costs. For boys, I assume the costs are even greater than for the girls.

The only check I can see that we need on child labor is the parents. Will they always make good decisions? Of course not. But if we are going to allow parents to make unlicensed, unregulated decisions to have children in the first place — to decide what they eat, where they sleep, what TV programs they watch, what magazines they read — decisions about the labor market would seem to be a no-brainer.

I know what you’re thinking. What if the parents (ghost of Charles Dickens) rent their kids out to a gang of pickpockets? What if they sell their kids into slavery? What if they sell them into prostitution?

The answer is simple. We take the kids from the home and put the parents in jail. I’m not for repealing the prohibition on child abuse. But the laws I’m talking about are not keeping the criminally minded from engaging in criminal activity. They are keeping good people from reaping the benefits of life-enhancing experiences.

Now before you disagree with my proposal, take a look at the two charts below and consider that:

  • Almost one in three teenage boys are out of work.
  • Among black male teenagers, almost one of every two is unemployed.

Where are all these out-of-work teenagers going to learn the basic interpersonal skills that only an entry-level job can teach them?


Comments (14)

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  1. Tom H. says:

    John, you are absolutely right. But the nanny state folks are never going to quit trying to manage everyone else’s life.

  2. Vicki says:

    Agree totally. Where do these busybodies get off thinking they should be able to tell everyone else what to so with their children.

  3. Lance says:

    I am reminded of “The Simpsons” Helen Lovejoy when she screams, “Oh, won’t someone please think about the children!”

  4. Nancy says:

    Provide health insurance for your neighber’s kid? In return for baby sitting? What is this writer smoking?

  5. Ken says:

    The graphs say it all. There really isn’t a need to say anything more.

  6. Tom P says:

    We just hired my 18 year old nephew for a summer job here at our company. His father asked that I make sure it was tough and hopefully boring as well. He had two goals when asking me to hire his son:

    1) Make him learn how to work. Future employers will teach him a job, but no one wants to teach a 21 year old how to work.
    2) Make him realize why he should take college seriously; if he doesn’t, he could end up with a job like we’ve given him for the rest of his life

    Very few of his friends have a full-time summer job. They will be at a distinct disadvantage going forward. To their credit, a few have asked to come in and work at half what we’re paying my nephew. To your point, John, they are smart enough to know that compensation for an 18 year old is a lot more than $/hr.

  7. David R. Henderson says:

    John, Very nice piece. I’ll have to listen to Mary Poppins later. In the California market, though, where I live, the minimum wage would have had zero effect on my daughter’s baby-sitting possibilities. Even when she was 13, she made somewhat more than minimum.

  8. John Goodman says:

    Just give them time, David. How long is it going to take the nanny state types to decide that the California minimum wage is way too low?

  9. Linda Gorman says:

    Plus, teens who work soon learn about tax burdens.

    One I know actually had a job of sorts and made enough to have to file this year. Coughing up cash for the self-employment tax was not a happy experience. Educational, but not happy.

  10. Chris Ewin, MD says:

    Good article…
    Agree with Tom..The lessons learned are more than the money…
    I have 4 daughters…Taking care of children was the best birth control I know…..

  11. Virginia says:

    My family is going through this now with my 17-year-old nephew. He has no marketable skills whatsoever. He barely knows how to drive, and yet, he somehow has this notion of what is a “fair” wage for cleaning tables at a Pizza Hut. Reality begs to differ.

  12. monkeywrench says:

    Ironically, the author of the offending piece indicts herself and devalues her argument when she states: Even for my age I was remarkably unqualified. There has to be some flexibility at the lower levels of the labor scale, or young people and the unqualified will never get that all-important first job.

  13. Art Fougner MD says:

    You left out Mandatory Basic Life Support Certification … may as well go All In

  14. Devon Herrick says:

    Growing up on a farm, I had no choice but to help with farm tasks at an early age. Shoveling grain, driving a tractor, carrying irrigation pipe, surveying for irrigation ditches, servicing irrigation engines were all things I did. As I recall my father only paid me $1 per hour.

    A couple of my friends also grew up on farms. When I told them about my experiences they said…. “What? Your father actually paid you for farm chores? We were told it was our responsibility as a member of the family!”