The Acton Institute and Suffering Little Children

A few years ago someone told me that I ought to check out an outfit called the Acton Institute as a sound purveyor of Catholic social teaching. At my age I usually forget what people ask me to do, so I never got around to it.

But just the other day I came across an article on the Acton Institute’s “Power Blog,” written by one Joseph Sunde, that made my hair stand on end. It would have been a pretty shocking read even if the Acton Institute wasn’t headed up by a Catholic priest. The title of the article: “Bring Back Child Labor: Work Is a Gift Our Kids Can Handle.” Yep. You read that right.

“Click bait,” you say? Well let’s take a look at the article [1], which is mostly a panegyric to another article by one Jeffrey Tucker, writing for the Foundation for Economic Freedom. [2] Mr. Sunde thinks we have let the bad old days of child labor, the “harsh excesses” as he puts it, distort our view of what a good thing child labor could be. The Washington Post, he insists, has been aiding in the distortion effort by having the temerity to put up photographs of actual child laborers from back in the day. [3] To Mr. Sunde’s mind, depicting something in a photograph is a kind of misrepresentation. I suppose that’s because he doesn’t want to see what he’s arguing for, he just wants to think about it. 

Now you might follow the link to see those pictures, and you might find it disturbing. If so, Joseph Sunde thinks you’re just a softy. You know what he sees? He sees “the faces of those who are actively building enterprises and cities, using their gifts to serve their communities, and setting the foundation of a flourishing nation, in turn.” That’s right. Where you might see a human tragedy, he sees productivity. And he thinks of these children as “using their gifts.” It doesn’t occur to him that what gifts those children had would have been squelched in such an oppressive environment.

He also shares with us the perspective of the object of his admiration, Mr. Tucker, whom he quotes at length. Mr. Tucker also has something to say about the pictures posted by The Washington Post.

“I also think about their inner lives. They are working in the adult world, surrounded by cool bustling things and new technology. They are on the streets, in the factories, in the mines, with adults and with peers, learning and doing. They are being valued for what they do, which is to say being valued as people. They are earning money.

“Whatever else you want to say about this, it’s an exciting life. You can talk about the dangers of coal mining or selling newspapers on the street. But let’s not pretend that danger is something that every young teen wants to avoid. If you doubt it, head over the stadium for the middle school football game in your local community, or have a look at the wrestling or gymnastic team’s antics at the gym.

“And I compare it to any scene you can observe today at the local public school, with 30 kids sitting in desks bored out of their minds, creativity and imagination beaten out of their brains, forbidden from earning money and providing value to others, learning no skills, and knowing full well that they are supposed to do this until they are 22 years old if they have the slightest chance of being a success in life: desk after desk, class after class, lecture after lecture, test after test, a confined world without end.”

You see, we have it all wrong. Those kids were happy to be in the mines. They had exciting lives. They were much better off there than in some boring old school. Mr. Tucker goes on:

“If kids were allowed to work and compulsory school attendance was abolished, the jobs of choice would be at Chick-Fil-A and WalMart. And they would be fantastic jobs too, instilling in young people a work ethic, which is the inner drive to succeed, and an awareness of attitudes that make enterprise work for all. It would give them skills and discipline that build character, and help them become part of a professional network.

“These attitudes are rather missing from today’s young people just entering the workforce. They are forcibly kept out and then we are shocked to discover that the average college graduate today has a hard time getting into his or her groove at the age of 23. It’s because their human right to work and earn has been violated for a good part of their lives, to the point that they have lost interest in and knowledge of what work is like at all.”

Just think of the possibilities! Instead of kids wasting time with all that book learnin’, they could be learning valuable skills stocking shelves at Walmart. Of course, you wouldn’t have to pay the kids as much as you do the adults, so that would be a great incentive for companies to hire them, just like in the good old days. The kids can get out of school, and corporations can increase their profits. A win-win for everyone!

Of course, you just know that old spoil-sport, Pope Leo XIII, had something to say about this sort of thing.

“And, in regard to children, great care should be taken not to place them in workshops and factories until their bodies and minds are sufficiently developed. For, just as very rough weather destroys the buds of spring, so does too early an experience of life’s hard toil blight the young promise of a child’s faculties, and render any true education impossible.” (Para. 42) [4]

There goes ol’ Leo again, trying to get in the way of profits.

What the Holy Father said is just common sense, of course. Children can’t develop properly if you put them to work too early. Sure, they can help out on the farm according to their ability, if they live on a farm. And I had a paper route as a kid. But to put them into the ordinary work-a-day world? That, as they say, is out to lunch.

Whoever it was who told me that the Acton Institute is a place to find Catholic social teaching was a little misguided. This article I read isn’t Catholic social teaching at all. At all.

Louis Rose