All Commentary
Friday, March 1, 1963

Least of All… The Family

Mr. Sparks is a business executive in Canton, Ohio.

When a group of us undertook to study the socialist doctrine “from each according to his ability, to each according to his need,” a clergyman friend in our midst said he took mild issue with the use of the word “socialist” as the ad­jective. The doctrine, he went on, could apply to a number of cir­cumstances involving human beings in society. and as a clincher, he added, “… for ex­ample the family.”

Our questions, seeking further explanation, brought forth the following sequence of thought: parents provide the ability, chil­dren receive their needs; since the family method of operation is in perfect accord with the doc­trine, it may be doubtful that “so­cialist” is the proper designation for the idea under discussion. Furthermore, the family operates in this manner very successfully; hence, this same modus operandi should be considered favorably for extension into the community, state, and national “families.”

In the ensuing discussion the arguments against “from-ability, to-need” in the economic and polit­ical areas outside the home were fairly convincing to the predomi­nantly libertarian participants. Nevertheless, the clergyman’s point seemed to have taken the edge off the libertarian argument, and some appeared to concede his assertion that families do, in fact, conduct themselves on the basis of “from each according to his abil­ity, to each according to his need.”

An uneasiness came over me. Having often used a simple situ­ation to clarify the fundamental elements of a more complex situa­tion, I had now been confronted with what was alleged to be a fundamental fact in a simple situ­ation. And this “fact” appeared to refute my conclusion pointing to the fallacy of “from-ability, to-need.”

Furthermore, I realized that many of the ideas for the welfare state and much of its support originate among very sincere per­sons striving to bring help, often in the form of material things, to those who have less than others. Of all the persons who advocate government laws bringing about wealth and income redistribution, none are so sincere as those whose professional work brings them into close contact with people in diffi­cult economic conditions, at least some of which misfortune seems to have been beyond their control. It is not surprising that a doc­trine calling forth the able to help the needy, accomplished by force of government in political social­ism, should find acceptance among these genuinely sincere persons.

How much of the socialist-en­forced “from the able, to the needy” stems from the analogy mentioned by my clergyman friend, I do not know. I only know that any difficult-to-refute argu­ment as simply stated and impres­sive as this one is, can well be the foundation for many subsequent faulty conclusions leading toward intervention by government.

His assertion was either true or false. If true, then why not extend a successful family-operating method to community, state, and national “families” as suggested by this proposal? If false, then reasons are needed to head off the use of an incorrect and harmful analogy.

To examine the matter care­fully, one must first delve into the nature of purposeful human ac­tion. Sitting before the TV set, working, working harder, giving to charity, mowing the lawn, walk­ing to the refrigerator, buying a dress for one’s wife, purchasing shoes, going to church—even sleeping—are examples of human action! Every act is done by a person as a preference to all other possible acts from which he can choose. In most cases, a person can perform only one or a limited few acts at the same time, to the exclusion of all other possibilities.

Doing What Seems Best

The fact is that every man’s every act aims at self-satisfaction, including a parent’s actions toward members of his family. So, the modus operandi of the family is not socialistic. Parents act to satisfy material wants and intangible desires. The motiva­tions probably include comfort, self-acclaim, love, respect, friend­ship, realization of a job well done, and pleasure in witnessing the joy and happiness of those who have received necessary assist­ance and guidance. Or, there may be unworthy influences such as in­fatuation with arbitrary author­ity and power. The father may be a tyrant whose gratification con­sists of batting his children around and terrifying his wife. However, our purpose here is not to debate the merit of various motivations but to point out that the intent to gain satisfaction through achievement of an ob­jective is the motivation of all hu­man action, and the potential satisfaction that motivates must accrue to the person who is acting, or the action will not occur.

Another’s joy may influence a person to act, but only the actor’s hoped-for satisfaction will really motivate the action. My sixteen year-old daughter may be pleased over a new dress I have bought for her, but my anticipated satis­faction (in promoting her health and happiness) must have been the motivation. I am sure she would be overjoyed if I were to buy her a bright-colored converti­ble or a mink coat, but her poten­tial joy in the receipt of such gifts does not happen to create a de­sired satisfaction image in my mind; or, if it is on my value scale at all, it is so far down the list as not to be an effective objective.

To further strengthen the point that self-satisfaction is unques­tionably the motivation in a par­ent’s actions concerning his child, one should reflect upon the fact that a minor child is but an ex­tension of the parent. It is quite natural that one would seek to satisfy the desire to find some­thing better in one’s offshoot. Feeding, clothing, educating, and otherwise caring for my child is in reality no different from caring for myself.

Unless self-satisfaction is ob­tained by the economic producers within a family, the family itself is endangered. If an economic pro­ducer receives more satisfaction in being attentive to and spending his earnings on a woman other than his wife, for example, the other members of the family may discover that neither their econom­ic nor their more intrinsic wants are being filled. Not present is the satisfactory exchange that prompts human action in the di­rection of over-all family gratifica­tion. In such an aggravated situa­tion, it is more than likely that law and officialdom will step into the picture. Only then, under the artificial requirement of law, is the “from-ability, to-need” ideal brought into effect. And then, it is only a temporary expedient un­til a normal arrangement can be restored.

No Evidence of Socialism

I have tried to find a trace of “from-ability, to-need” in the normal activities of the members of a family. I have sought it in the teaching of children, in the sacrifice of parents, in the acts of love, in the quest for accomplish­ment, in the discipline toward self-reliance—and nowhere in the family can I find any evidence of the presence of this socialist doc­trine.

Children are often taught house­hold jobs as their individual re­sponsibilities. Merely because fourteen-year-old Jane has the ability to make beds is no good reason why she should be required to perform these tasks to satisfy the needs of her younger twelve-year-old sister and eight-year-old brother. If all three are responsi­ble for their own bed-making, then each will grow in strength of mind as each develops self-reliance to complete this daily household task, even though the finished job of the youngest may appear to have been stirred with a stick. Again, the socialist ideal here under ex­amination, “from-ability, to-need,” does not come into use, and for good reason. Self-reliance is a more desirable trait to develop than dependence; and fortunately, self-reliance still remains high in esteem inside the American family.

Erroneously, there is a connota­tion of sacrifice in “from-ability, to-need.” Sacrifice, a worthy achievement in the truest sense, more appropriately belongs out­side the socialist realm, insepara­bly tied in with free will. Sacri­fice is often mistakenly thought of as a selection of a certain human action on some basis other than self-satisfaction to the actor. This is error. Sacrifice is merely one kind of self-satisfaction. Parentsmay work hard and deprive them­selves of worldly goods that they otherwise could have acquired, in order to save for the college edu­cation of their children. Some may think this human action is illustrative of the “from-ability, to-need” ideal, falsely equating a warm, wholesome human action with this socialistic doctrine. Yet, in the absence of coercion, one must conclude that parents volun­tarily choose their course of ac­tion; that is, they sacrifice be­cause they receive satisfaction for themselves by providing their chil­dren with higher-education oppor­tunities. Were this basic principle not true, the family could never have developed in the first place. Sacrifice is not a giving up. It is an action, taken voluntarily, by which the actor expects to receive what he believes to be a greater value or pleasure in place of what he believes to be a lesser value or pleasure.

To Achieve Maximum Satisfaction

Does this differ from any other human action? No. All voluntary action will be directed toward the achievement of more, rather than less, satisfaction. It is to achieve my satisfaction that I act. It is to achieve your satisfaction that you act. Achieving satisfaction for oneself is in itself neither sel­fish nor unselfish. How the action is affected by the various influenc­ing factors may be an indication that one’s satisfaction-seeking acts are based on self-comfort or self-acclaim to such an overwhelming extent that the importance of other factors—such as love within his family—is slighted; thus, self­ishness may be said to rule one’s actions. On the other hand, an actor whose satisfaction-seeking is influenced more by love than self-comfort or self-acclaim may be thought of as unselfish. Whether the analysis is accurate or not is difficult to ascertain, but in neither case is “from-ability, to-need” in operation.

Is the demonstration of love within a home limited to adults and to those with monetary abil­ity? Hardly. The small child that presents his prized and favorite stuffed animal to a parent as a token of love, shows the true in­gredient of love—the self-satis­faction in the giving of oneself. The child acts naturally, not ac­cording to an artificial, non-satis­fying concept.

In a famous Biblical story, the parable of the talents, the master expected more to be returned to him than his original investment with each of his servants. So does the expectation run high with parents that their reward will also exceed the original investment in their children by seeing them ma­ture into good, sterling lives to contribute to man’s slow evolve­ment toward his Destiny. Again, “need” is not the key. The master, in the parable, rewarded the abil­ity that was translated into ac­complishment.

Bringing Out the Worst

Admirable qualities evolving in mankind are such things as self-reliance and the wisdom to envi­sion a long-term greater good in place of an immediate or short-term lesser good. Such evolvement occurs at a more rapid pace when the self-satisfaction motivation is free of force, except that of the dictates of one’s own increased wisdom and persistent conscience. By contrast, the unnatural “from-ability, to-need” does not impel mankind to a higher plane of de­velopment but rather brings out the worst.

In her recent novel, Atlas Shrugged (Random House, 1957), authoress Ayn Rand recounts the fictional but vividly realistic story of an industrial company whose owners decided to give the com­pany to its employees on the con­dition that a policy of work and wages be adopted, embracing the socialist ideal of this particular discussion—”from each according to his ability; to each according to his need.”

The employees, bulk of the population of a small Wisconsin town, were a closely-knit group, com­posed largely of friends and rela­tives. But when “need” became the medium of compensation, pro­duction and quality fell off sharply. More important, however, is the description of persons who were forced by these unnatural circumstances to dramatize their needs. An ex-employee character of the novel relates: “It took us just one meeting to discover that we had become beggars—rotten, whining, sniveling beggars, all of us, because no man could claim his pay as his rightful earning, he had no rights and no earnings, his work didn’t belong to him, it be­longed to ‘the family,’ and they owed him nothing in return, and the only claim he had on them was his ‘need’—so he had to beg—for relief from his needs—listing all his troubles and miseries, down to his patched drawers and his wife’s head colds, hoping that ‘the family’ would throw him… alms. He had to claim miseries because it’s miseries, not work, that had be­come the coin of the realm… each claiming that his need was worse than his brother’s.”

This vivid word picture can very easily be translated into the contemporary Washington scene, as civic leaders from communities of the nation put on similar alms-seeking acts. But does this picture coincide with the operation of any personal family you know? If it does, then one would expect that all recipients of that family ex­chequer, like Miss Rand’s example, would also become “whining, sniv­eling beggars.” Yet, this is not the true picture of most families; and, particularly far removed from such a description are those families that abound in mutual love and respect.

Sincere persons are prone to be taken in by the deceptive attrac­tion of this socialist concept be­cause of the misleading implica­tion that our highly-regarded family institution works in such a fashion. It is unreasonable, how­ever, to suppose that the tradition­ally solid foundation of our free society is based on the reward of non-ability and non-satisfaction.

It is quite possible that our gen­eration of Americans have with­stood the onslaughts of socialism as well as we have, precisely be­cause home life has not embraced the “from-ability, to-need” ideal. The dawning realization by sin­cere but misguided intervention­ists that the artificial “from-abil­ity, to-need” socialist ideal suc­cessfully fits no natural situation of human society—least of all the family—may just possibly shut out faulty conclusions built on this false premise.

  • John C. Sparks, who died on March 27, 2005, served on the board of trustees of the Foundation for Economic Education for many years. In the mid-1980s, following his retirement from business, Mr. Sparks served a term as FEE’s president.