A discussion arose over at Morgan Freeberg’s House of Eratosthenes blog about equality, and the resident cuttlefish asked a worthwhile question: “Does the government have a role in ending childhood labor, and making sure children have a basic education?” This is a good question. If you are ever asked a similar question, here’s my suggestion of how to respond: look to the Constitution.
Whenever there is a question of whether government has a role in something, my first act is to look at Article I, Section 8 of the Constitution and see if the powers granted there to the U.S. legislature include that role. Since there are two parts to this question, child labor and education, let’s look at them individually.
Child Labor Laws
The only part of Section 8 that could be applied to child labor laws has come to be known as the Commerce Clause. Specifically, it states that the legislature has the authority to pass laws “[t]o regulate Commerce with foreign Nations, and among the several States, and with the Indian Tribes.” That phrase has been the Constitutional justification for nearly every bill Congress writes that regulates any sort of economic activity, even in some cases when the people are not engaging in economic activity.
As interpreted by Congress, any economic activity falls under the Commerce Clause and may be legislated by Congress. I believe that Congress has used the Commerce Clause to legislate far beyond its intended scope, but for argument’s sake, I’m willing to grant Congress a role in ending child labor via the Commerce Clause. Since the resident cuttlefish has demonstrated difficulty with reading comprehension, he asked again, “Does government have a role in ending childhood labor?” So I replied:
Government has no role in ending childhood labor because government has already done away with it. When a college student is getting her first paycheck, the specter of preteen urchins all dirty from coal dust is a century-old issue that doesn’t apply now. If all child labor laws were obliterated tonight because Pres. Obama has a pen, how many preteen youths would show up [at] a coal mining operation tomorrow?
The cuttlefish never answered the question about how many preteen youths would show up at some coal mining plant if Pres. Obama were to obliterate existing child labor laws, but I’ll answer for him: not a one. They would be too busy messing around with TV, computers, games, and cell phones to bother with the responsibility of work.
The question of whether the U.S. government should legislate child labor is a moot issue now – we don’t have child labor, certainly not of the dirty-faced urchin variety, and it’s doubtful that we will ever have it again, not with the workforce participation rates we have now.
So, what role does the U.S. government have in childhood education? The cuttlefish never got around to pointing out the piece from Section 8 (or any other section of the Constitution) that gives Congress responsibility over education. I must therefore assume that he never addressed it because there is no provision in the Constitution for education. The Ninth and Tenth Amendments make it clear that powers not delegated to the U.S. or denied to the states are held by the states or the people. This makes education a state issue, not a federal issue. And the states have assumed this responsibility, as typified by the Washington State Constitution in Article IX, Section 1:
It is the paramount duty of the state to make ample provision for the education of all children residing within its borders, without distinction or preference on account of race, color, caste, or sex.
So, does the U.S. government have a role in childhood education? No. The U.S. and state constitutions show that this role is reserved for the states and the people. That is what the primary law of the land states, regardless of the other federal and state codes that have sprung up since and attempted to usurp this power.