Endogenous Technical Progress and the Emergence of Child Labor Laws
AbstractI develop a theory of technical progress that uncovers sufficient conditions for opposition to the adoption of child labor laws to disappear over time. The supply of child labor comes exclusively from unskilled parents, because of their inability to help their children benefit from formal education, while its demand originates from capitalists-the firms' owners. Because child labor crowds out adult employment, there are always social pressures to ban it. However, such pressures are met by capitalists' opposition. Capitalists oppose the adoption of a ban on child labor because such a ban reduces opportunities for earning a high return on capital. Technical progress, induced by skill accumulation, improves the earning prospects of firms hiring adult workers only, while it reduces those of firms hiring children only. As a result, more capitalists are drawn into the adult labor market, and industrial opposition to a ban on child labor eventually vanishes over time. Provided child labor exhibits skill-enhancing learning-by-doing, policy action to speed up the emergence of child labor laws should therefore focus on education reforms that raise the quality of education school-goers receive, and on political reforms that raise the cost of lobbying legislators against adopting a ban on child labor. However, in countries where child labor provides little or no opportunities for learning-by-doing, no law will emerge unless appropriately targeted poverty alleviation mechanisms are designed, in order to induce unskilled parents to allocate a positive fraction of child's time to schooling.