In a 1998 Harris survey, family values were defined as “loving, taking care of, and supporting each other” by 52% of women and 42% of men. These ideas have nothing to do with markets or money. They also have nothing to do with the roles of men and women in the family. The loving, caring, and supporting of children, elders, and siblings are not services we can exchange or pay for; they are things we normally do without expectation that the other party will (or can) always reciprocate.
Some family “debts” can never be repaid, such as our debt to our parents for raising us. It is profoundly unnatural to treat love and care within families as business transactions, barter, or exchanges. For example, Margaret Atwood (2008, p. 1) at the beginning of her book about debt wrote:
“Nature writer Ernest Thompson Seton had an odd bill presented to him on his twenty-first birthday. It was a record kept by his father of all the expenses connected with young Ernest’s childhood and youth, including the fee charged by the doctor for delivering him. Even more oddly, Ernest is said to have paid it.”
And David Graeber (p. 404) commented,
“Seton’s father,a failed shipping magnate turned accountant, was, Seton later wrote, so cold and abusive that his son spent much of his youth in the woods trying to avoid him; after paying the debt – which incidentally came to $537.50, a tidy but not insurmountable sum in 1881 – he changed his name and spent much of the rest of his life trying to develop more healthy child-rearing techniques.”
The slogan “from each according to his ability, to each according to need” provides a clear description of how healthy families should function. This is also the core slogan of communism, so as Graeber (2011) explains, the “economics” of the family are perhaps best described as communist or communalist. “From each according to his ability, to each according to need” was first written by the French communist Morelly in 1755 and repeated later with approval by many anarchist and communist writers such as Louis Blanc (1839), Henri de Saint Simon, and Karl Marx (1875).
If we ignore the archaic sexist grammar, “from each according to his ability, to each according to need” is, indeed, an accurate description of how families function. We don’t expect young children to earn a living or cook meals. We care for relatives in times of illness, if they have disabilities, in old age, and in childhood. We support relatives who are down on their luck. And so on.
On the other side, as with Mr. Seton’s father, we are shocked and disturbed by individuals who exploit family members. We treat such things as child labour, sexual abuse, or senior neglect as criminal and immoral. This story from the Oakville, Ontario Beaver (2012), provides a recent example:
“Mr. (Roman) Kaziuk would rip off the wings of all the angels in Heaven and sell them to the devil for his own gain, if he could.” Ontario Court Justice Lesley Baldwin didn’t mince words in her written judgment when she summed up convicted Hamilton con man Roman Kaziuk, 57, and sentenced him to 10 years in prison on convictions for fraud and theft over $5,000. Baldwin was sentencing Kaziuk to 10 years in prison for a string of frauds which pushed his 88-year-old mother Feliksa Kaziuk, out of her Oakville condo into a homeless shelter. … “Obviously, corporate type frauds … cannot compare to one’s mother,” said Baldwin in her report. “Not even the notorious fraudster Bernie Madoff was guilty of destroying his own mother as Mr. Kaziuk has repeatedly done.” … “In jail, this offender will be better off physically than his own mother,” stated Baldwin.
Thus, in healthy families individual members contribute what they can and take what they need. This system seems to work most of the time for most families, but sometimes in breaks down when one family member exploits others by taking more than their share or contributing less than seems fair. The result can be anger, ostracism, retribution, or (occasionally) violence, legal action, or intervention by the authorities.