“From each according to ability, to each according to need” was Karl Marx’s maxim and socialism’s guiding principle. UW-Madison’s “Madison Initiative for Undergraduates” describes the same principle like this:

“This Madison Initiative for undergraduates will increase tuition… in order to help provide a significant fund for need-based financial aid… Students with demonstrated need from families earning $80,000 or less will be held harmless from this Madison-specific increase…” In other words, tuition should flow from each student according to ability to each student according to need.

Many students rightly view this as unjust. Why, they ask, should the needs of one student be a claim against his fellow classmates? A frequently asked question regarding the initiative is: “Why should families making more than $80,000 a year subsidize students and families who are less well off?”

What is the university’s answer?

As if to puncture moral indignation and assure the questioners of their own inefficacy, the university responded by assuring students they’re all dependent on subsidized funding. The cost of tuition, they stressed, would be much higher were they not on the public dole.

Of course this is partly true. Parents (and non-parents) are forced to subsidize education through taxation whether they send their children to a public school or not. In this sense they are dependent on public schools if they hope to get some of their money back. But the dependence is imposed on these parents through taxation. The low cost of tuition is an illusion since the so-called subsidies are monies taken from parents in the first place.

The verdict? Don’t complain about being forced to subsidize your neighbor because other people are forced to subsidize you, including your parents. Talk about adding insult to injury!

The real answer is our leaders and intellectuals agree with Marx. They uphold needs as a moral claim on your life. They believe you have a duty to sacrifice part of your resources for those who lack them. This is the meaning of altruism and part of the Madison Initiative.

Increasing tuition to pay for need-based aid is not about helping the misfortunate or expanding the reach of education to the less well off. It is not about building a diverse environment or fostering a society of goodwill. All of these things require self-interest; they require parents and students to evaluate their goals and surplus income and decide how best to support their values, charitable and otherwise.

But allowing families to act in their self-interest — to decide whether they value supporting needy students — is what the initiative is designed to prevent. It is not enlightened self-interest they are seeking; it’s dutiful service.

This moral code of sacrificing the haves to the have-nots is vicious in theory and disastrous in practice. By enshrining need as a moral standard altruism destroys achievement and rewards dependence. Consider parents making over $80,000 who want to help their children through school. Instead of being encouraged to do so, they are penalized. They are told in order to help their children they must help needy children as well. This amounts to a tax on helping their children.

Instead of repealing this unjust burden, these students are encouraged to cut financial ties with their parents and apply for independent status — that is, to make themselves needy — so they may apply for financial aid. Indeed, Chancellor Biddy Martin encourages all students to apply for financial aid.

Thus parents who start out with the ability and desire to help their children through college are taxed and penalized in the name of the needy. The money collected from them is then used to “subsidize” their children’s education to the extent they can demonstrate need. This perverse system of penalizing ability and rewarding need is a race to the bottom. Need multiplies while the independent, self-sustaining student perishes. But this is a virtue for those who hold need as a moral standard. As the Chancellor indicated, she would like to see an increase in students requiring need-based financial aid.

UW-Madison should drop its immoral goal of sacrificing ability to need — the fact this practice is ubiquitous does not make it right. It should respect the self-interest of all students, families and alumni and recognize each student’s moral right to pursue his own goals and education. They are not the means to the ends of others.

Jim Allard ([email protected]) is a graduate student in biological sciences.