All Commentary
Wednesday, December 1, 1993

Little Lessons in Larceny

The messages learned in childhood are often the most enduring.

Mr. Madden teaches communication at Mount Mercy College, Cedar Rapids, Iowa.

At a family gathering last Christmas, I had the opportunity to observe an event all-too-familiar to anyone who has spent time around small children. My three-year-old nephew was playing with a new toy he had received. The truck came with a number of smaller pieces: a driver, a tiger, and various accessories. Smiling, he carried his treasure into the living room where other family members sat. Immediately his two-year-old cousin came over and seized the tiger from the back of the truck.

Naturally, my nephew tried to take back the purloined toy. Just as naturally, his cousin twisted away and clutched his prize more tightly to his chest. Plaintively, my nephew looked up with a pained expression on his face and pointed to the small plastic tiger. Sternly two or three of the adults in the room—including his mother—told him in no uncertain terms, “You have to share.”

I cringed. While I had in the past heard such admonitions from adults to children not even their own, this time I felt even more uncomfortable with such a pronouncement. The brief drama I had just witnessed seemed to exemplify one of the basic problems with our society. This microcosmic encounter and countless others like it have helped establish the underpinnings for a moral assault on our free society, the sanctity of private property, and individual responsibility.

There is, of course, nothing wrong with sharing. But there is something wrong with stealing, and what happened in that living room was stealing, not sharing.

The messages learned in childhood are often the most enduring. They are unthinkingly adopted before we have the intellectual ability to analyze them. Buried among forgotten childhood experiences, these principles frequently guide our adult actions without ever being exposed to the light of rational questioning. Eventually, however, we will face the negative consequences of a faulty ethics and ask, bewildered, “How did this happen?”

“Sharing” done because someone makes you do it is just as much a self-contradiction as is the notion of “forced charity.” The redistribution of income applauded by most politicians; the cries of our citizens for “entitlements” and social welfare programs to fulfill personal needs or desires; the idea that governmental interference in our private lives is proper; and the contention that taxation, the draft, and paternalism are moral actions—all these destructive beliefs and actions can trace their roots to the kind of mindset which says to innumerable and defenseless small children, “You have to share,” when their toys are taken.

The good intentions of parents and adults do not alter the damage they are doing. They feel they have fulfilled their parental duties when—sure enough!—the child surrenders his toy to the uncertain mercies of that other small child. If by chance the toddler-owner should further resist, he is accused of being “selfish,” even though that opprobrious label is somehow never attached to the child grabbing and demanding that he be given access to the first child’s possessions.

The implicit messages parents send by their orders to “share” are many; that your private property does not really belong to you; you can enjoy it only until someone stronger comes along and demands that you surrender it; that the use of force is proper morality; that the surest avenue for gaining what you want from someone is not by negotiating for it but rather demanding that you need or simply desire that person’s property; that your own desire to hold your property must be subordinated to the desire—should we say avarice—of those-who-have-not, regardless of whether they deserve any such help or assistance; and that proper self-interest is bad and must—and will—be punished.

Through countless little morality plays, children grow into adults who accept the notion that those who demand the property of others are entitled to receive it, and those who defend their own property are immoral. The demands of the homeless, the uninsured, the student, the businessman, and the retiree, jealous of others who have what they do not, are echoes of the whining cries of those spoiled children who “want” and “need” the toys of their playmates.

But a free society cannot survive by following such moral principles. A just society demands that all transactions be voluntary; that no one initiate force directly or indirectly; that someone else’s need or desires does not give him license to enslave you, or tax you; that the only proper function of a government is to protect our lives, liberties, and properties, and not to violate them.

Might does not make right, neither for children, nor adults nor governments.

If parents want to teach their children to share, they first need to understand it themselves.

Parents should tell their children first that what is theirs is theirs: They need not share if they do not want to. By the same token, they cannot use the toys of other children, if those children prefer not to share. The idea of property is fundamental. Should a child wish to use another’s toy the proper course for him to follow is to ask. If the other child declines, he should offer an exchange of some kind: this duck for that elephant. If the answer is still no, they should either increase their offer or be satisfied with what they already have. Under no circumstances should a child be allowed simply to seize the property of another. If another child should take a toy your child does not want to give up, the aggrieved party should feel free to come to you to rectify the problem, i.e., to return the toy, not to take the side of the thief against the innocent victim.

Voluntary interactions, exchanges, and negotiation; the sanctity of private property; parents who encourage cooperation and punish theft; a government designed to protect rights, not to violate them: These form the foundation of a free market, a free society, and a free individual.