Choice and Responsibility

Mr. Knepher is an instructional systems designer and free-lance writer in San Diego.

What is it that makes man unique among the creatures of the earth? This question has been debated throughout history and has been answered in many ways, but the one attribute that has consistently been mentioned is man’s ability to make choices. Man is the only creature that can willingly choose to act against his self-interests. Other creatures are driven by instinct; man alone chooses his path. This ability to choose includes the ability to choose what appears to be the wrong path.

A person’s decisions can be guided by a variety of impulses—a long-term plan, a misunderstood set of circumstances, apathy, a clear vision of the future, or a momentary pleasure. His actions can be trivial or crucially important; they can be self-sacrificing or self-indulgent. In the long run, he may be better off, or he may end up with nothing at all. In each instance, however, it is the individual who is making the choice. And it is he who is ultimately responsible in a free society for the consequences of his choice. To be human is to be able to choose, even if we choose wrongly.

The classic economic marketplace is made up of choices. Should I buy this good or that? Should I spend or save? Should I put my savings in a bank or invest them in a new product? These judgments are the essence of the marketplace. There is no guarantee that my decisions will be the correct ones, but without options, there can be no marketplace.

Unfortunately, much of our recent political history consists of state actions designed to limit our choices, usually “for our own good.” Products have been banned, industries regulated, exports subsidized, imports restricted, the poor “assisted,” the middle class taxed, and the income of the wealthy “redistributed,” all in the name of a New Deal, a Great Society, “consumer protection,” or the “rights” of some special interest group. The net effect in each instance has been to reduce the options available to the individual. If the trend continues as some wish it to, we will all eventually drive the same kind of car (made in this country), live in the same kind of house, and brush our teeth with the same kind of toothpaste. The marketplace will be controlled out of existence.

Although we usually associate the marketplace with goods and services, there is, in a free society, a marketplace for ideas. Here, through magazines, books, motion pictures, people on soap boxes, and so forth, a wide range of philosophies and ideas compete for our attention. As in the economic marketplace, some of these ideas are of high quality while others are extremely shoddy. There are choices to be made, and the choices here are as difficult as those in the economic marketplace. And, as in the economic marketplace, a group of “consumer advocates” has arisen to, once again, protect us from ourselves by limiting our alternatives. One group would protect us by banning saccharin, the other by banning books.

Both of these groups would have us believe that the choices they would deny us are really false ones. After all, they say, who in his right mind would want to buy an unsafe car or a pornographic book? But the fact remains that we as individuals no longer have the right to make that decision for ourselves. The choice has been made by someone else, and we are diminished by that fact.

Some argue that the good to society outweighs the loss to the individual when some of these choices are removed. However, even if it could be proven that a given regulatory action would objectively improve the lives of the members of society, a strong case can be made that the very act of regulation does more harm to society than any benefits could offset.

With each choice I make comes the responsibility for the consequences of that choice. If I must choose between two actions, or between action and non-action, I will, to the degree of impact of my choices, give the alternatives some thought (especially if there is no one else to lay the blame on if I mess up). However, if the choice is nonexistent, so will, in many cases, be the thought about the alternatives. If I have no say in the decision, I have no responsibility for the outcome.

In so many areas of our lives, decisions that once belonged to the individual are being taken over by the state. We no longer have to choose how or whether to provide for our old age—the state has assumed that responsibility (or so the politicians tell us). We no longer need to make informed decisions in the marketplace—others will do our thinking for us. We no longer need to decide what our children should or shouldn’t watch on television. Others who feel they know more than we do will decide for us.

Sadly, it would seem that the more responsibility the state takes from us, the more we are willing to give it. As Ralph Waldo Emerson points out in his essay “Politics,” “Want of liberty stupefies conscience.” It has become entirely too simple in our society to say, “I have no control over that,” or “That’s not my responsibility-let someone else worry about it.” We are no longer interested in making difficult choices and really don’t want to know what is going on around us. But, as we let someone else worry about it, the crime rate rises and the streets become increasingly unsafe. Our consciences become stupefied, the visionaries and bureaucrats who would run things for us cannot cope, and those who would take advantage of the rest of us use as their defense, “It’s not my fault. I’m not responsible for my actions.” They may be right.

Where does the responsibility for the condition of a society lie? It lies with the members of that society. Deprived childhoods and Twinkles are not the culprits. We are. We have allowed the state to take away so many of our choices and do so much of our thinking for us that we have forgotten what true responsibility is about. There will always be special interests—those who feel that they know more about what is best for us than we do. As long as there is a state mechanism that will allow these interests to make our decisions for us, they will continue to do so. And as long as there are those who can avoid the responsibility for their actions, there will be crime.

What is the answer? It is simple in concept but difficult in execution. Return to a free society. Make each of us responsible for his own life once again. Remove the power of the state to make our decisions for us, and give us back the freedom to choose our own path as long as we harm no one else. And if we do harm another, make certain that justice is swift, fair, absolutely impartial, and completely certain. Make us think before we act. The world will be better for it. And so will we.