There's plenty of commentary already by economists much brighter than I on the fool's errand that is labor market intervention. Banning (or heavily regulating) internships robs young workers the opportunity to hone their basic workplace skills. Add to this the misfortune heaped on them by minimum wage laws and child labor restrictions, it's a wonder that anyone can ever break into the labor market at all.
But does this imply that the moral intuitions of the meddlers are intentionally cruel? I don't think so. We've really got a BATNA disparity here. Young workers are not salable. They don't have too many options. Of course, this outrage is a preposterous one: if you're worried about disadvantaged workers, you'd lobby to tear down immigration restrictions, but I suppose that's a thought for another post. Point is, unskilled white collar labor is not euvoluntary. This is a simple fact of career trajectory. You have to start somewhere, right? Anyway, efforts to block unpaid internships would, sadly, do nothing so much as worsen the set of available opportunities. Again, career trajectory insists that people have to get basic work skills somewhere; apprenticeships are largely dead in the US, so we've got the internship instead.
- From the point of view of the firm, what is the advantage of unpaid internships?
- Given that college students are greenhorns, what is the best way to season them before graduation?
- If unpaid internships were banned, what institutions might replace them?
- What sorts of voluntary labor arrangements should be regulated by the Federal Government--what justifies workplace intervention?
- Why should the state worry so much about people who are likely to become middle-to-upper-middle class workers rather than low-skilled labor?