Those of us seeking a more fair, egalitarian and stable society often imagine a more-or-less utopian future. Part of what we imagine may be expressed with the old quote “From each according to his ability, to each according to his need.” (Wikipedia tells us that while this quote is often associated with Karl Marx, it actually precedes him – going back at least to Louis Blanc in 1839.)

Island of Utopia

The concept has a moral and practical basis. We wouldn’t want to live in a world with no sanitation workers, no janitorial work and nobody to do various other necessary jobs. So, why should those who do these jobs have less of their needs met? Suppose every adult could just as easily be the proverbial “rocket scientist” or “brain surgeon.” Such a person might find some necessary but repetitive jobs even more wearing than most people do. If there are non-rocket scientists who can work in factories, let the rocket scientists be happy they are rocket scientists and give the factory workers a generous standard of living.

And the concept apparently resonates with many people’s aspirations – they are able to imagine the quote coming from heroic figures. Wikipedia tells us:

According to a survey conducted by the Museum of the American Revolution, “more than 50 percent of Americans wrongly attributed the quote “From each according to his ability, to each according to his needs” to either George Washington, Thomas Paine, or Barack Obama,

We still haven’t crossed beyond the realm of society dominated by big money. Once we do, it will still take a while to reconfigure the economy and government, change habits and assumptions, and otherwise prepare for goals such as “to each according to his needs.” In the final analysis, future society will use its decision-making processes to apply (or not apply) such a rule of distribution. I’m not assuming I’ll be there to participate in finalizing how it’s done. Still, we can try to shed some light on the question today.

This goal may not have been so complicated back in the 19th century. Back then, the products of society to be shared by working people was less diverse and abundant. There were no phones, TVs, radios, refrigerators, gas stoves, microwaves, automobiles, computers, and other things we’re used to today. Now, with the rise of productivity, new technology, and labor organization, working people can have enough non-essentials there are plenty of choices. One person may go to movies for weekend entertainment, another will pay to play tennis, another go to a night club, another something else. Given the choice, one person might want access to a cabin in the woods, another to be able to travel in an RV, another would like to visit other countries and stay at hotels, another may not want to go away but might prefer so many tickets to a local sports team.

So what does “to each according to his need” mean today? Is our future society to provide basic food, clothing, shelter and medical care to all, but operate on today’s cash purchasing basis for everything else? Do we calculate a total value of all the goods and services to be distributed this year, use a formula to assign each person’s need as a fraction of the total to be distributed, then give each person cash for their part of the total distribution, but let them spend it however they want? Perhaps, that’s the best we can do, but it’s actually providing a cash equivalent of an estimate of expenses. It may not be exactly what we dreamed of, but it is based on an estimate of appropriate buying power rather than on aspects of “ability.”

Perhaps, one day there would be enough vacation options available [as in the example above] for people to just receive a voucher for “two week vacation” and be able to get their preferred version the vast majority of the time. And perhaps, they would be understanding on those occasions it didn’t work out and just select their next favorite alternative. Maybe the individuals wouldn’t always be happy about it, but society would feel it was doing the best it could.

Today, vacations often involve making advance reservations. Perhaps, future society will expect people to express preferences in advance for various options for goods and services. That could allow shifting production from what had previously been requested by citizens to what was being asked for in the latest survey. On the other hand, the people might decide they don’t want to have to decide in advance and then get what seemed like a good idea a few weeks or months ago.

Automation

It’s possible that by the time society is ready to implement such an approach it could be a moot point. Automation may have largely replaced human labor and technology may have eliminated putting some items into individual’s homes and pockets. Perhaps, homes will come with “programmable furniture” which allows each person to tell the item what type and style of furniture to form itself into. Maybe the tasks done by a variety of electronic devices will all be done by a single device everyone has. Maybe a culture of community and knowledge that one’s needs will be met will reduce how much people want “their own” items rather than arranging that society tends to have items available when one wishes to use an item.

If we ever have something like a Star Trek “replicator,” each home, workplace, etc. could have a device which could produce just about anything you wanted that had previously been designed and had its “blueprint” available. (On a practical note, such a device would need a supply of appropriate raw materials to build things out of. So anyone who wanted to use such a device would need enough of the appropriate materials.)

But it may be better not to assume all aspects of the question will disappear by itself.

As we move in this direction, there are advantages that can be gained. At such time as society decides there are certain basic foods, clothes, personal care items and such that can be made available free, those items could be offered at special stores with no price tags, no cashiers, no security cameras, and so forth. That means spending less of society’s resources to distribute those items – so those resources could be put to increasing affluence elsewhere. Perhaps when first instituted, some people might still be in old habits and take more than they needed. Therefore, the benefits might not be immediate. But it’s reasonable to expect that behavior to decline over time.

Wikipedia says:

Marx explained his belief that, in such a society, each person would be motivated to work for the good of society despite the absence of a social mechanism compelling them to work, because work would have become a pleasurable and creative activity.

I believe most people would do their part in such a society. They would act not only out of good citizenship, but also because humans are social creatures who are concerned about being well thought of by others. Science also tells us that there are a number of kinds of animals which show a sense of fairness and engage in cooperative activities. This is part of our evolutionary heritage, not just a recent ideology. However, I think it would be a mistake to believe this applies to all people. Science also tells us that about 1% of the population could be diagnosed as “psychopaths.” This designation doesn’t mean they are psychokillers or are incapable of distinguishing reality and delusion. It means these people don’t act on the emotions that motivate healthy relationships or being good members of society. They feel no remorse for the harm they do to others and they like to manipulate other people.

It is believed this condition tends to result from a physical brain defect. So, at some future time, it may be curable. However, until such time as it is, these people would not contribute their fair share for the kinds of reasons Marx anticipated. (It’s not clear that if it were curable that a psychopath would choose to be cured. This could face society with the question of whether involuntary curing was acceptable.)

As psychopaths also find it convenient to manipulate their way into positions of power, they will also pose a threat to a society trying to develop up to that cooperative state.

So, this may not be so much a question of how to implement “to each according to his need” and deal with psychopathy as it is a matter of how to minimize the harmful effects of psychopaths in any society. As discussed in my diary on the Forbes article “Why (Some) Psychopaths Make Great CEOs,” the psychopaths’ lack of normal social needs and motivations shares a logic with the inhumane pattern of capitalism. Those two fit together. After capitalism, we will have to work to keep the psychopaths from re-establishing that pattern.

Below is a list of Scientific American articles related to why people (and some animals) cooperate and have a sense of fairness

How Animals Do Business; April 2005; by Frans B. M. de Waal; 8 page(s)
Humans and other animals share a heritage of economic tendencies–including cooperation, repayment of favors and resentment at being shortchanged

The Arithmetics of Mutual Help; June 1995; by Nowak, May, Sigmund; 6 page(s)
Computer experiments show how cooperation rather than exploitation can dominate in the Darwinian struggle for survival

The Economics of Fair Play; January 2002; by Karl Sigmund, Ernst Fehr and Martin A. Nowak; 6 page(s)
Why do we value fairness and cooperation over seemingly more rational selfishness? How can Darwinian generosity arise? Biologists and economists explain

There’s the eternal question of personal property.

Presumably, there will be less need for everyone to have their own permanent thing-a-ma-jig. I do see some items one would want to associate with a particular individual. Even more than today, there will probably be people hand-making arts and crafts and giving them to individual friends and family. And when I’m finished at the museum on a cold, wintry day, I’d rather not find that the only thing left in the coat room is someone else’s light Spring jacket. While most people would not walk off with someone else’s coat at the museum, that only applies as long as we still have some concept that makes most of the items in the coat room “someone else’s.”

This doesn’t have to be based on a definition of “somebody’s item” identical to property today. Perhaps, we can hint at this by considering the current legal status of co-op apartments. Today, when a person “buys a co-op” the legal paperwork actually states he has taken possession of a certain number of shares in the apartment building. As an owner of shares, and depending on the number of shares, the person is given use of a certain apartment in the building. However, he doesn’t “own the apartment.” That fact limits the rights of what he can do with the apartment. On the other hand, when someone “buys a condominium” he has more legal right to do what he wants with the apartment because he is considered to “own the apartment.”

As the owner of co-op shares has exclusive use of the apartment, other people aren’t legally permitted to enter or use the apartment – despite the fact the current resident doesn’t “own it.” Members of a future society may have items assigned to them for their exclusive use, but not be viewed exactly as owners in a capitalist society.

Woodcut by Ambrosius Holbein