I believe in personal responsibility. As an American, it is difficult not to believe in personal responsibility. What does it mean, though, when we talk about “personal responsibility?” Unfortunately, I think the phrase means different things to different people. Sometimes people use the words “personal responsibility” in a way that is, well, irresponsible. And that’s a shame.
To me, the idea of being personally responsible means making a deeply personal commitment not to be irresponsible, to “do the right thing” at all times. That means not only “fessing up” when things go wrong through your own fault; it means taking responsibility before the fact to make sure things go as well as they possibly can. It means taking reasonable precautions and being diligent in your oversight.
For many people, though, personal responsibility means saying. “Yeah, I confess. I did it,” only when they are caught in some act of malfeasance. It means publicly “reforming” a thoroughly corrupt system through meaningless half measures, the “sackcloth and ashes” of public contrition. Those things are okay, to a point, if done in good faith. Personal responsibility, however, certainly ought to mean avoiding wrongdoing (and, to the extent humanly possible, the appearance of wrongdoing) in the first place.
In the last generation, the Republican Party has been successful (literally, unbelievably successful) at selling themselves as “the party of personal responsibility.” In fact, the GOP has made a fetish of personal responsibility, and we, the people of the United States, have been affected—negatively—in two ways. First, the “fetish-ization” of personal responsibility has made us particularly touchy about being taken in by those who are personally irresponsible, to the extent that we cast a cold eye on anyone who, say, needs assistance from the government.
Ronald Reagan invented—out of whole cloth—the myth of the welfare queen driving to the welfare office in her welfare Cadillac. Of course, it was all nonsense, and racist nonsense at that. Yet the story became part of the mythic foundation of welfare “reform” (i.e., welfare removal), and we Americans were spared the guilt of refusing to care for the weakest and poorest among us by seeing them as lazy and shiftless.
The personal responsibility fetish continued into the 1990’s with Newt Gingrich’s—and the GOP’s—“Contract with America,” (also known as the “contract on America”). One piece of the Contract was titled, without a hint of subtlety, the “Personal Responsibility Act” of 1995. This act denies welfare to mothers under 18 years of age, denies additional aid for dependent children (AFDC) for women who have children while on welfare, and stops all AFDC payments after five years. Take that, irresponsible poor people!
Was some sort of welfare reform necessary? Perhaps. But one could just as correctly argue that reform of corporate tax laws is equally necessary. Fighting waste in the defense budget is equally necessary. And it would not be unfair to argue, especially today, that convincing American corporate CEOs that making over 400 times the salary of the average worker (according to Business Week) may be unjust is an equally pressing issue. Making a fetish of personal responsibility makes it easy to see only irresponsibility on a personal level.
The second problem with this fetish is that our obsessive attention to personal responsibility blinds us to the fact that we all share—citizens, government, and industry—a social responsibility. We are all responsible for one another. We have lost sight, perhaps, of the truth that we are all citizens in a democracy, not merely consumers in a market.
We Americans—as consumers in a marketplace—are so concerned with getting the top value for our dollar. We’re concerned with not being cheated or taken advantage of, being treated courteously in the marketplace, and getting our fair share of the “American dream.” And that’s fine. But we sometimes forget that 35 million Americans get very little value for their dollar, because they are living below the poverty level. We forget that an American is three times as likely to be unemployed if he is black rather than white. We forget that if you are gay or lesbian you are more worried about being the victim of a violent assault than you are of being treated discourteously in public. And we don’t seem to notice that for those without health insurance or dependent on Medicaid, access to even the most basic health care is getting more and more difficult.
One can argue, I’m sure, whether the very idea of social responsibility is or is not an implicit part of democracy. We certainly praise the young men and women in our armed forces—and rightly so—for risking and giving their lives for the freedom of others. But when we look at social responsibility through the lens of capitalism, at least the unregulated, laissez faire, “free-market” form of capitalism that has descended upon us in the last generation, it’s hard to see where social responsibility fits in.
Franklin Delano Roosevelt once said, “The test of our progress is not whether we add more to the abundance of those who have much; it is whether we provide enough for those who have too little.” Not so very long ago, Americans lived by those words. We can again, if we choose to.