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Friday, December 1, 1989

My Family Life as a Socialist

Mr. Bray is the Editorial Page Editor of the Detroit News. This article originally appeared in the December 18, 1988, issue of the Detroit News and is reprinted here with permission.

The Christmas season always reminds me that I am something of a socialist. No, I am not a fan of Karl, Vladimir, Mao, and Mikhail. Socialism, and particularly its virulent communist form, is crackpot stuff. When it comes to family, however, most of us exhibit distinctly socialist tendencies.

Think about it when you’re divvying up the presents under the tree on Christmas morning. The kids, who usually have contributed least to family income, usually wind up getting the most packages. Morn and Dad usually come out about equal with each other, even if one has contributed more to family income than the other. Relatives and in-laws all get their fair share.

In other words: From each according to his ability, to each according to his need—just as Karl Marx advocated. Marx proposed a system in which national income would be distributed according to need rather than status. He believed that by eliminating the gap between “rich” and “poor,” communism would remove the sources of class conflict that supposedly lead to oppression and war.

So if communism or socialism is OK at the family level, why not at the community level, the state level or the national level?

The problem is motivation. In a system where all share equally, irrespective of their input, nobody has an incentive to do much work. That’s why the Soviet Union, 70 years after the revolution, is such a basket case. The only way Moscow has been able to get any of its subjects to do any work at all is through liberal doses of fear. If you don’t work, you get five to ten in the Gulag.

But that’s not a very effective way of getting people to do good work. The family contains a far more powerful motivational tool: love. Not that abstraction known as love of mankind, in whose name crimes against humanity are frequently committed. I speak of real love, which is possible only among individuals and attaches most powerfully to families. Love between parents, love of parents for children, love of children for their parents.

Families are a complex, self-reinforcing web of relationships: conjugal relations, parent-child bonding, moral example, shared experiences, and so on. It’s within the family that love has the best chance of thriving. It doesn’t always turn out that way, unfortunately, but family is still the best incubator of love known to man.

Oh sure, when our kids were little we sometimes invoked the fearsome ritual known as a spanking. Force has a role in family, too, at least when the kids don’t seem to be getting the message about busting up the furniture, marking on the walls and sassing the teacher.

But a spanking was intended not so much to hurt physically as drive home a message: You disappointed us. The symbolic, temporary withdrawal of love was what gave the message its power—and made discipline, when properly applied, a loving act in its own right.

This love and discipline is one reason that mothers and fathers can provide large amounts of “welfare” to their children without making the children dependent. When the government provides welfare, the outcome is frequently the opposite—as our large and growing “underclass” attests.

Within the family, parents possess the authority, built on love, to compel their children to become independent—which parents know is the only way their children can find true happiness and fulfillment. And children, to retain the love and respect of their parents, are usually just as eager to fly the nest and prove themselves.

The family is also a much more efficient mechanism than the state in figuring out what each little “welfare recipient” requires to make him or her independent. As any parent knows, raising children is, shall we say, a challenging task. Even when we work at it more or less full time, we still often botch the job.

What chance, then, does a bureaucrat behind some far-off government desk have to structure people’s lives in ways that will help them become independent? He knows little if anything about the welfare cases he is handling, and receives little if any feedback from the individuals involved.

Christmas is the time that Christians celebrate the Christ child, the ultimate family story. Christianity has often been misunderstood as a fable of communal sharing, a sort of mandate for socialism. But Christmas is most directly a story of the transforming and redeeming power of love, which is why it is natural for families—the basic units of love—to gather together at this time of the year.

Love can’t be measured by the social scientists, which is one reason the family has received such short shrift in 20th-century social policy, with disastrous consequences. But love is there—under the family Christmas tree. And that’s why I don’t worry about those socialist tendencies that well up in me from time to time. Family is the proper place for them.