Editor’s Note: Originally published March 01, 1963.
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 served on the board of trustees of the Foundation for Economic Education for many years. In the mid-1980s, following his retirement from business, he served a term as the Foundation for Economic Education’s President.
Used with the permission of the Foundation for Economic Education.