Against Internship-interventionism

The earlier half of October saw the European Parliament – a legislature elected by citizens of European Union member states – vote on a resolution which, amongst other items, called for a ban on unpaid internships. The vote passed with eight-two percent in favor, eleven percent opposed, and the remainder abstaining. 

The resolution emphatically condemns unpaid internships as a violation of young people’s rights and requests that the European Commission begins work on an enforced ban, according to the parliament’s website. This sentiment echos throughout the United States as much as it does in Europe – with many adding that unpaid internships exasperate inequality. Both the moral argument and the economic argument on inequality falter under scrutiny.

Firstly, there’s the moral argument. Superficially, the prospect of a young person performing unpaid labor seems immoral, that is, before one considers the underlying nature of the transaction.

 Let’s ask, why would one voluntarily work for free? In the case of internships, it’s to acquire experience so as to improve one’s human capital – in essence, a form of education. While the “employer” provides the intern experience, in turn, the intern compensates the employer with his labor. Essentially, the intern buys education with labor rather than dollars. One might add those unpaid internships, which are obviously less desirable than paid ones, are often the only avenue through which less qualified individuals can gain experience.

This is the same transaction in which colleges and students engage. So, for moral consistency, one opposing unpaid internships would need to rebuke colleges and all other non-free education as violating young people’s rights by the same principle. 

As of my writing this, I’ve yet to hear of any EU officials mounting a daring rescue of students from a university, heroically dragging a French student from the lecture hall with the cigarette still hanging from his lip, or simply voicing criticism of paid-education. Most other internship-interventionists share this lack of opposition to colleges – and thus a fundamental lack of consistency. 

Beyond the moral objection, there lies the economic one – unpaid internships exasperate inequality as those with less money are unable to shoulder the cost. 

The solution then, we are told, is for the state – by its own decision or that of a supernational body like the EU – to outlaw any internships that don’t pay at least the minimum wage. The intern is now paying their labor in exchange for money and education; in effect, the state has coercively lowered the price of internship-experience. When prices are forcefully set below their natural market level, shortages naturally ensue. This is because the demand for the product increases – since people consume more when something is cheaper – while the supply drops sharply – as it becomes more worthwhile to use limited resources for other purposes. 

 To put it another way, the artificial prices are signaling people to seek out more internships while telling employers to offer less.

Internships are evidently necessary for many young people’s future plans – otherwise, why would one devote their time and efforts to getting and attending one. So a necessary service has now been rendered artificially scarce via government intervention. Ironically the solution to the issue of certain members of the population being unable to afford to obtain necessary internships has ensured that a larger group is now unable to procure internships as they no longer exist due to state intervention. Furthermore, by depriving less qualified interns of the ability to work for free if they choose, such a ban would render it virtually impossible for those people to gain needed experience. 

Although this solution is clearly misguided, the issue of inequality remains. Here, our comparison to higher education proves helpful again. Just as many individuals take out student loans to improve their human capital via schooling, they can also, and often do, take out loans for internships. Additionally, these internships often overlap with one’s attendance of university finance by loans. So it is not as if one needs to have thousands saved in order to engage in an internship. 

Granted, the student loan landscape – at least in the US – is far from ideal, but the point stands nonetheless. Although it lies beyond the scope of our discussion, I might add that the issues we witness in the student loan landscape are chiefly the product of ill-conceived government intervention, which was supposed to aid young people, yet obviously didn’t.  

So, while most European parliamentary ministers and other internship-interventionists bear the best of intentions, their plans would ultimately deprive most young people of what exists, for better or worse, as a necessary opportunity to strengthen their employability via education. This exists as another example among many that good intentions have no correlation to good results. 

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