In the forthcoming argument over whether to grant states the authority to require adult children of low-income nursing home patients to pay some part of their parents' care, the administration is right. The administration believes that affluent adult children have a personal responsibility to help out their indigent parents.

Quite possibly we are now witnessing, as one liberal on the House Ways and Means Committee warns, "the Fort Sumter firing of a protracted intergenerational war." But, in the judgment of Rep. Morris Udall, whose liberal credentials are unchallenged, the requirement would be "a positive step in the right direction."

That direction, toward the public acceptance of individual responsibility, is away from the unstated, but assumed, notion that compassion can somehow be subcontracted, that personal obligation can be discharged by contributing cash or votes to candidates supporting programmatic liberalism. The thought that it is not the adult child's responsibility to help his parents is obnoxious. And that thought should be especially obnoxious to liberals by whom we are regularly reminded of our solemn duty to "save our senior citizens from years of fear and insecurity."

But, argue the ever-pragmatic liberals, it will be difficult to administer and enforce such a responsibility on adult children. Like the bankers who oppose withholding the tax on dividends, these liberals prefer to discuss mechanics rather than equity. It is true that grown-up sons and daughters, who are not decent, cannot be made decent by the enactment of a law or the promulgation of a rule. But society certainly has the right to establish, and to require, minimum standards of decency in how adults treat their parents. Financial support is one such standard.

When nursing home care for the elderly, of which the federal government pays 55 percent and the states pay the rest, is the single biggest Medicaid item at $16 billion, it is reasonable that the financially strapped states should look for help. In establishing any assistance schedule, the states--undoubtedly much to the consternation of the economic royalists in the administration--will be guided by the liberal principle of the ability to pay. That makes both sense and justice.

But in the meantime, can anyone who pretends to acknowledge the Judeo-Christian tradition, to which we so frequently pay homage, argue that adult children have no responsibility to their parents who can no longer take care of themselves? What should take precedence? That memorable Club Med trip? And if we're not going to help out our parents in the nursing home, who should pay? The big oil companies? The multinationals?

Liberals do not believe that everyone is supposed to be relieved of all responsibility. The adminstration, this time, its right.