Professor Ludwig von Mises, the great Austrian economist; put it well when he noted that the generally deplorable conditions extant for centuries before the Industrial Revolution, and the low levels of productivity which created them, caused families to embrace the new opportunities the factories represented: “It is a distortion of facts to say that the factories carried off the housewives from the nurseries and the kitchens and the children from their play. These women had nothing to cook with and to feed their children. These children were destitute and starving. Their only refuge was the factory. It saved them, in the strict sense of the term, from death by starvation.”The situation is not dissimilar from so-called "exploited" workers.
Private factory owners could not forcibly subjugate “free-labour” children; they could not compel them to work in conditions their parents found unacceptable. The mass exodus from the socialist Continent to increasingly capitalist, industrial Britain in the first half of the 19th century strongly suggests that people did indeed find the industrial order an attractive alternative. And no credible evidence exists which argues that parents in these early capitalist days were any less caring of their offspring than those of pre-capitalist times.
The situation, however, was much different for “apprentice” children, and close examination reveals that it was these children on whom the critics were focusing when they spoke of the “evils” of capitalism’s Industrial Revolution. These youngsters, it turns out, were under the direct authority and supervision not of their parents in a free labor market, but of government officials. Many were orphans; a few were victims of negligent parents or parents whose health or lack of skills kept them from earning sufficient income to care for a family. All were in the custody of “parish authorities.”
3. Ludwig von Mises, Human Action (New Haven, Connecticut: Yale University Press, 1949). p. 615.