In my hometown of Worthington in southwestern Minnesota, the hog packing plant has been busted for violating child labor laws. The kids were cleaning dangerous equipment, some of which I knew intimately from using them in summer employment as a college student. I am appalled. Our town used to be idyllic, part of the empire of Lake Wobegon, a town that explicitly cared for her children. That is, until further reflection.
I now recall that parents let us kids run behind the mosquito fogger truck that sprayed pesticides in our neighborhoods. The city’s giant toboggan slide into the lake was notoriously dangerous and unsupervised. Kids growing up on farms would be injured or killed by farm equipment. We wrenched our backs weeding fields of soybeans and detasseling cornfields.
My parents, who both grew up on farms, while we were raised in town, had the philosophy that as soon as we kids could physically do a task, it was ours to do. We cleaned with dangerous chemicals, we ironed clothes with an iron a bit too heavy for us to comfortable control. We ran a steam roller that pressed sheets and linens. When we could reach the lawn mower handles and push the beast, we were expected to do it, despite the fact that they sent people to the Emergency Room with leg injuries. Kids were kicked by cows and horses. We pushed stuck cars out of ditches. We delivered heavy Sunday newspapers during blizzards.
While children naturally want to help their families, and parents may need their help, children lack the capacity for fully informed consent, or knowledge of what is dangerous, among other problems inherent with child labor. And adults under financial pressure or greed have their judgment impaired about what to require of children. This is why the objective oversight of distant government, for all its faults, is required to keep us all in line. We can’t trust our own judgment or our own perception as to what is reckless or what is simple exploitation.
Here is where the philosophy that something is only wrong if you get caught crashes into moral reality, like a toxic train wreck in Ohio.