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Laws that protect us from our faulty memories

| April 27, 2023 12:00 AM

Every little once in a while I am reminded that laws are created to protect us from ourselves, or more particularly from our faulty memories, or from forgetting history.

For instance, years ago we didn’t have environmental protection laws because we didn’t need them. We were happy, at that time, to not eat fish we caught in Montana’s rivers because we knew that the high lead and arsenic content of those fish meant jobs, and we were happy to sacrifice our own selfish desires so that people could have jobs even if those jobs created a public health hazard.

Then we got spoiled by those who said the rivers had to be cleaned up because they were killing fish and people and tourism. So now that we have clean rivers, tourism, fishing and healthy people why do we need those laws anymore?

Another area of collective forgetfulness is why there are laws to protect workers. In today’s job market it’s hard for employers to find enough workers. The main reason there is such a shortage of employees is that there is a shortage of people of working age. The people who swelled the working population that followed World War II, called the Baby Boomers (born roughly between 1946-1964) have now reached retirement age and are taking themselves out of the labor market. Since they and their children did not have enough babies to make up the difference in employable citizens there are not enough workers to take the jobs the Boomers are leaving.

So, what can we do to fill the gap? We can’t encourage immigration because immigrants take jobs away from working native-born Americans. (How they are taking away jobs from native-born Americans when there are already too many jobs for native-born Americans to fill is a bit of a head scratcher, but, well, they just are.)

But comes now a brilliant solution from an outfit called the Foundation for Government Accountability (FGA): relax the child labor laws! Who better to make a decision about how young a kid should be able to go to work than the kids themselves, with or without asking their parents. If you can’t make old people work, let the kids fill in.

A fellow named James Harris (quoted in the Washington Post of April 23, 2023), who lobbies for FGA’s Opportunity Solutions Project which promotes rolling back child labor laws, says that today’s child labor laws are based on a time when “atrocious working conditions” were common. He goes on to say “Maybe there was a time and need for a lot of that. Today’s work environments are the safest they’ve ever been.”

Of course they are the safest they’ve ever been, and part of that reason is the effectiveness of child labor laws which began in 1938 with the Fair Labor Standards Act. But we have forgotten that, haven’t we.

To implement FGA’s ideas, bills were introduced in Iowa, Arkansas , Missouri and other states to make it easier for businesses like meat-packing companies to hire children between 14 and 16 years old. In Missouri the legislation originally did not require parental consent. It now does. (A search of the Montana Legislative database does not show similar legislation requested but the Opportunity Solutions Project did have a registered lobbyist working at the 2023 Legislature.)

Public school policy is to blame as well. If a kid wants to go to work at age 14 why should he have to remain in school until 16? To which I might add, an uneducated workforce is a compliant workforce. And, get this, some of the kids they are talking about are the undocumented immigrant children who crossed the border without their parents. Talk about taking jobs from native-born American children.

It’s a bad idea. You can go to Butte and see the pictures of “breaker boys” as young as 8 who worked in the mines, and while you’re at it, you can visit the Berkley Pit, America’s largest man-made toxic reservoir. I mention that just to bring the discussion of memory loss full circle.

Montana Viewpoint has appeared in weekly and online newspapers across Montana for over 25 years. Jim Elliott served 16 years in the Montana Legislature as a state representative and state senator. He lives on his ranch in Trout Creek.