Dr. Carson is Professor of American History at Grove City College, Pennsylvania.
Much of the criticism of government officials, bureaucrats, and politicians is beside the point. Stories are legion of attempts to contact the appropriate bureaucrat to deal with some matter, particularly in Washington, and getting the run-around instead —shunted from one person to another, told that the proper official is in conference, that he is on leave, that he cannot be reached at present, and so on. The difficulty may well become insurmountable if there is an attempt to place the blame for some action. Such experiences may build pressure for yet another commission to be appointed, in the manner of the old Hoover Commissions, to investigate the bureaucracy and recommend change. A new President may become so exasperated trying to establish clear-cut lines of authority and responsibility that he will press vigorously for reorganization. These are attempts to treat the symptoms, however, not the disease.
In like manner, businessmen will say of some government bureaucrat: "He never met a payroll in his life." The thought behind this caustic remark is that if the official had employed men, if he had been responsible for accumulating the money to pay them, if he had to provide goods and services to get the money, he would understand the problems of the businessman. And if he understood, he would be more lenient, would modify the rules, would make more tolerable decisions in the area of his authority. There are many variations on this theme. Has the building inspector ever built a house? Has the sanitation inspector ever done any plumbing? Has the labor arbitrator ever employed men? Has the Interstate Commerce Commissioner ever run a railroad? The answers seem quite important to those who find themselves harassed in one way or another by government officials. Yet, they do not matter much. The underlying flaw of the system would still be there, though each of the above questions was answered in the affirmative.
"Let George Be Responsible"
Superficial attempts to improve the situation have followed upon the superficial analyses of the problem. Most notably, there has been much talk in recent years about men behaving responsibly. Businessmen are exhorted to act "responsibly" to avoid the "necessity" of government intervention. Labor union officials are begged to be "responsible" in their demands upon industry. Newspapers are expected to be "responsible" in what they report. College professors should be "responsible" in their pronouncements. It is widely held that rights and privileges have corresponding responsibilities and that even "civil rights" advocates should be "responsible" in their advocacy. While such exhortation may have some effect on the behavior of men, it is more likely to impress children. It is a confidence game, an attempt to sway men to behave contrary to the way they are impelled and encouraged to act by the established system.
In fact, we have widespread and pervasive organized irresponsibility in America. It makes little difference whether government bureaucrats have met a payroll, whether Interstate Commerce Commissioners have run a railroad, whether labor arbitrators have employed men, and so on. No reorganization of the bureaucracy under the present system will go very far in making government officials accountable for what they do. In numerous cases the exercise of power has been cut off from the consequences of the action, and the use of authority has been disjoined from responsibility for results.
To understand this, it will be useful to get clearly in mind the nature of responsibility. The following ideas are closely associated with responsibility: obligation, chargeable, accountable, liable, amenable, and answerable. Philosophically, the meaning of the word is derived from the idea that individuals respond to that which confronts them; they make choices and act; by choosing and acting, they become responsible for the results. For example, a man fathers a child; by so doing, he becomes responsible (is obligated) for the rearing of the child. Responsibility is personal and individual; it has to do with cause and effect, with the relationship between what one has done and the consequences of it.
Individual, Social, Legal
There are three elements which, when taken together, reinforce one another and make for full-fledged responsibility. First, there is the individual’s sense of obligation to meet his responsibilities. For example, a man buys something for which he contracts to pay over a period of time. He has willingly entered into an agreement; he has obligated himself to make payments when they fall due. His sense of responsibility may lead him to meet the terms of his contract. Second, there is social responsibility. As to the particular debt in question, society would appear to have no interest. Yet it does. The individual in question has dealings with others. They are interested in knowing whether he pays his debts or not. If he does not meet his obligations promptly, this failure will affect his credit rating (a social instrument), and men may cease dealing with him in any matter that involves time considerations. Thus does society hold men responsible. Third, there is legal responsibility. A creditor may go into court to get a judgment against the debtor. To enforce this judgment, the creditor may, in the final analysis, attach the debtor’s possessions, garnishee his wages, or throw him into bankruptcy (have him proclaim his irresponsibility to the world). Analogous procedures must be in effect in all areas of life for full-fledged responsibility to exist.
A Slow Erosion
A generation has been brought up to believe that men are not responsible for their acts. This is an overstatement of the case, of course. Children are still taught that they are responsible — sometimes and in certain areas — for their actions. Adults, some of them, still have a sense of responsibility and can be held socially and legally accountable for actions. The truth is, however, that this responsibility is being eroded away. The erosion has occurred gradually and piecemeal in America, for the most part. We are seldom told anything so general and all embracing as that men are not responsible for their acts. To do so would raise the question of the philosophical implications of such a position.
Rather, subtle doctrines of irresponsibility have been spread over a period of several decades. Men are the products of their environment, we are told. Responsibility is collective, another version goes; society is to blame. For more than a century the doctrine that institutions have corrupted men has had its advocates. Others hold that men are factors of their class or economic situation. Socialists, following the lead of Marx, generally have held some variation of the doctrine that changes in technology produce tensions in society which result in the different views and actions.
In particular, we are told that criminals are the products of bad environment, infantile frustrations, social maladjustments, and so on. Labor violence is supposed to be the product of exploitation. Race riots, even an Attorney General may proclaim, are the results of deprivation. Revolts, whether of college students or of would-be nations, are the consequences of oppression.
In short, we are led to believe by subtle explanations — and in particular instances which, when taken together, include almost all cases — that men are not responsible for what they do. It is not possible, of course, literally and consistently to apply these doctrines in a society. Society cannot feel a sense of responsibility or guilt (for that matter, it cannot feel anything, for it is not sentient). The environment cannot be locked up. Technology cannot be reformed by a period in reform school. To say that entities of this character are responsible is the practical equivalent of saying that no one is responsible and nothing can be done about it. Those of the naturalistic persuasion (popular among some intellectuals in the latter part of the nineteenth century) quite often drew just that conclusion from the doctrines.
Destroy and Rebuild
But the doctrines of individual nonresponsibility can be and have been applied selectively for attaining certain objectives. They are most effective ideas for destroying the social system of responsibility, and, for that matter, civilization itself. Such doctrines are effective in destroying the individual’s sense of responsibility (called guilt feelings in the argot of certain psychologists). If believed, these doctrines inhibit the practice in society of men holding others responsible. And, of course, these doctrines of nonresponsibility can be used to remove legal responsibility. In short, they can be and have been used for destructive purposes.
They have also been used as the basis for attempting to construct a new social system. That is, these doctrines have served as arguments for using government power to change the environment. Efforts at remolding institutions are spurred by those who believe such ideas. Collective practices have been advanced to replace the system of individual initiative and individual responsibility. The result, however, is not a new system of responsibility. It is, instead, organized irresponsibility, that is, irresponsibility institutionalized and made a part of the way of life of a people. Exhortations to people to be responsible are replacing the system of responsibility.
Some examples will demonstrate how this has occurred. It has been going on for several decades now and is gradually extended into more and more areas of life. One of the most conspicuous instances of organized irresponsibility is that of the so-called independent boards and agencies of the Federal government, though those of many of the states are equally so. Among such organizations of the Federal government are: Interstate Commerce Commission, Securities and Exchange Commission, Federal Reserve Board, National Labor Relations Board, Federal Power Commission, and so on. Of a similar character so far as responsibility is concerned are the government corporations such as the Tennessee Valley Authority.
There are several angles from which to view the irresponsibility of those within these organizations. First, they are government agencies. Those who exercise the powers of government appropriate monies most of which are not their own. They pass laws which apply to the population generally, not just to themselves. They make war and peace, make treaties of alliance and commerce, employ workers, have charge of an extensive constabulary, and may use force to obtain obedience to their commands. All of these powers affect the lives of many more than those few who actually exercise them.
In the United States, many devices were adopted to make those in government responsible or to give them as little leeway as possible to act irresponsibly. Perhaps the most important of these was a written constitution in which the powers of government are enumerated and government is specifically forbidden to enter certain fields of operation. The powers of government were divided among three branches so that quest for power by any person or branch would be supposed to be negated by the jealousy of other branches. Those who appropriated monies were made responsible to the people from whom the monies came by being made subject to election at frequent intervals. Those in government were supposed to be subject to the laws passed, and those who execute the laws and spend the monies were to be accountable for their stewardship to Congress and to the courts.
The Interstate Commerce Commission was the first of the "independent" agencies organized to evade many of the devices for holding responsible those who govern. Since its founding in the 1880′s, its power has been increased to include setting minimum and maximum transportation rates, deciding what services must be performed or may be discontinued, approving or disapproving mergers, and so forth. Legislative, executive, and judicial powers, rather than being separated, have been blended in one body, so that the quest for additional power by this organization is not at the expense of other political branches but of the owners of transport facilities. Congress authorized the Commission, but it operates "independently" of Congress. The Executive appoints the members, but they serve for a period of years and are therefore "independent" of the Executive. In short, the Commission — and others like it — is not responsible to the electorate. No election has ever been held where the actions of boards and commissions were sufficiently at issue to say that they have been either popularly approved or disapproved. Nor is one likely to be. These agencies are "independent," independent of the people — that is, politically irresponsible.
In the final analysis, though, the Interstate Commerce Commission — and all who exercise like powers — would be irresponsible even if it were a committee of Congress or a department of the Executive. The actions themselves are irresponsible. When the Commission sets a rail rate, its members are not responsible for operating a railroad on the revenue derived. When it prescribes that services must be rendered at a particular station, it is not responsible for providing these services. If the regulated company goes bankrupt, the Commission does not have to pay the bills. The members of the Commission can make decisions with virtual financial and legal impunity. They are not responsible — even when they circumspectly refrain from harmful decisions; the transport companies, in such case, have only escaped by chance.
Degrees of Irresponsibility Among Various Agencies
The same charge of irresponsibility is valid against other government boards, commissions, and corporations in varying degrees. The members of the Federal Reserve Board cannot be sued, in consequence of their monetary manipulations, for the loss of value of the money which people hold or have owed to them. The Securities and Exchange Commission will not make good losses suffered on the stock market as a result of its action or inaction. The National Labor Relations Board does not pay those workers to whom it awards back pay. The board which controls the Tennessee Valley Authority neither pays for the work it hires to be performed nor does it make good any losses incurred by the Authority.
It should be pointed out, however, that the boards which control government corporations do have some responsibilities. If there are degrees of irresponsibility, the board which directs the Tennessee Valley Authority is not as irresponsible as the Interstate Commerce Commission. The members of the board, or their agents, do undertake to provide services, do meet payrolls, do enter into contracts, and are in some ways accountable for their actions. Governmental irresponsibility is widespread, and does not necessarily involve violations of the principle of the separation of powers. The enactment and raising of the minimum wage has been irresponsible. By this action, Congress compels employers to pay a certain wage, but it takes no responsibility for this. That is, Congress does not raise the money to meet the payroll. If men lose their jobs because the employers cannot pay these wages, the individual members of Congress do not undertake to provide them with employment by paying them out of pocket. Nor, if the employer goes out of business, can he sue Congress for damages. Equally irresponsible are Congressional rulings regarding hours of labor.
Who Pays for Mistakes?
Something should be said under the heading of government financial responsibility for what its agents do. The United States government and the governments of states do engage in numerous business undertakings such as building roads, maintaining post offices, providing education, setting up corporations, and so forth. Government agencies are not liable for payment of damages in the same way that private corporations, partnerships, and individuals are. Governments can be sued, of course, with their permission. The winner of a suit against some government may recover damages. But there the similarity with private suits ends. Congress may appropriate money to pay damages, but the individual members of Congress do not pay for this; at least, they pay no more than any other taxpayer. This is another way of saying that the government is not responsible for injury done to others. It merely passes on the claim to the taxpayers. By contrast, private companies and individuals are responsible for injuries done.
Federal Aid Uncontrolled
Government responsibility is often attenuated, at best, but many of those who have labored to get government involved in more and more things have also worked to remove the last vestiges of responsibility. The public schools afford an example. It is a common saying that politics ought to be kept out of the schools. If those who say this meant that government should get out of the business of education, it would make sense. But that is not their meaning. They favor government support of education but do not wish political intrusion in the management or control of the schools. They would have the populace support the schools but deny the people a voice in the management of the schools. For politics is the means by which popular consent is given and denied in America. Those who want to keep politics out of the schools want government support without government control, whether they know it or not. In short, they propose to make the public schools completely irresponsible.
Long strides have been taken toward making those who teach in schools and colleges responsible to no one. This has been accomplished to considerable extent under the doctrine of academic freedom and the practice of tenure. These two things combined are supposed to leave the teacher free to say and teach what he will (theoretically, though not practically, bounded by a restriction that it be within the area of his competency). He is responsible to no one for what he teaches.
Other Abuses of Privilege
Irresponsibility abounds in America today. Aid to Dependent Children permits men to father children and women to give birth to them without assuming the full responsibilities of rearing them. Various government agencies relieve children of the responsibility for caring for aged or infirm parents. So-called civil rights leaders preach hatred of men, practice trespass, and encourage the destruction of property without being held responsible for what they do. Those dependent upon government for a livelihood are permitted to vote, and thus to vote themselves benefits at someone else’s expense. Union leaders press for wage increases which they do not have to pay. Congress votes increase after increase in the Federal debt, with no provision for paying it. It has been years since any reduction of the debt has been made. Policemen are not held responsible for violating the rights of the accused; instead, criminals are turned loose by higher courts when their rights are said to have been violated. Thus, irresponsibility is compounded. Movements are afoot to subvert established political processes by granting to groups power unrestricted by popular consent. Examples of this are civilian review boards and civil rights groups and organizations being given Federal monies to dispense. Irresponsibility is highly organized, vociferous, and rampant in the land.
There is a saying that goes like this: "What you do speaks so loud that I cannot hear what you say." This certainly applies to those who admonish us to be responsible today. We have been busily removing the supports to responsibility while shouting ever more loudly that men should be responsible. Responsibility depends upon a very real nexus between cause and effect, between actions and consequences, between accomplishments and rewards, between what we do and our accountability for it, not upon a spurious indoctrination of a sense of responsibility. "Independent" boards and commissions cannot be made responsible by proclamation, nor labor leaders by acclamation, nor civil rights workers by asseveration, nor teachers by inculcation, nor parents by vocalizing about it.
A confusion of terminology hides the truth from us. In a vague sort of way, the admonitions to boards and commissions are to be circumspect in what they do, to labor leaders to be moderate in their demands, to civil rights advocates to be gentle in their actions. It would be as logical to admonish thieves to take only a moderate amount of money or goods, to admonish assaulters to exert gentle persuasions, or to admonish extortionists to be circumspect in their demands — while removing all penalties for criminal behavior. For we have made long strides toward separating cause from effect, power from responsibility, and actions from their consequences. We are trying to make the individual’s spurious sense of responsibility do the work formerly done by individual conscience, social responsibility, and legal accountability.
The Consequences of the Irresponsible Way of Life
It requires no major gift of prophecy to foresee the outcome of organized irresponsibility. Indeed, some of the consequences are already with us, and it is necessary only to extend them in other cases. Boards and commissions establish inflexibility in the economy, on the one hand, and produce uncertainty on the other, making businesses difficult to operate, resulting in high prices and poor service. Labor unions paralyze industrial centers and are restrained from extending this to the country as a whole only by a dubious sense of responsibility or the threat of force and involuntary servitude. Academicians fill children’s minds with notions that have been tested by neither reason nor evidence. Government action produces unemployment by minimum wages and tries to correct this by heavy doses of inflation. Violence and destruction in the cities, particularly in summer, makes life increasingly perilous and property insecure.
Freedom becomes license without responsibility. To put it another way, there can be no freedom without responsibility. No man is free when he can have his life taken by murderers who will not be held responsible by the courts, when his ownership of property is vitiated by the control of those who do not receive the consequences of their actions, when his children may be taught any doctrine without his approval or consent, when the actions of others are restrained only by their inward determination to restrain them. Free men are responsible men, else every man’s freedom is potentially a trespass upon every other man’s.
Nor can civilization survive the constant strain put upon it by organized irresponsibility. The desire to exercise power without responsibility may not be the oldest sin, but it is one of the earliest according to the Bible. After Cain had slain Abel, he wished to avoid the responsibility for it. The desire is there, but the nation that succors it wills its own destruction. Men lose their integrity and are corrupted by organized irresponsibility. Policemen lose their zeal to apprehend criminals when those whom they catch are turned loose. Businessmen turn to lobbying, to influence buying, to the quest for special privilege when their survival depends upon it. Men devise subtle ways to live off the labor of others when government becomes the bounty giver. Workers are seduced into slipshod work and malingering when they can use the threat of violence to hold their jobs. Men gather in mobs to hand out rough and uneven justice when the courts no longer serve society. When men become acclimated to irresponsibility, they do so by becoming weak-willed and irresolute. As children, they fall prey to the strong man who will restore order by intemperate but widespread use of force.
The remedy for this distemper is what it has always been. It lies, first, in the recognition that men are responsible for their acts. Second, it can be developed by inculcating a sense of personal responsibility in individuals. Third, society sustains it by rewards and punishments handed out accordingly as one has been responsible or irresponsible. Lastly, men must be held legally accountable for what they do, and must not be permitted to engage in actions for which there eon be no accounting.
Many persons are so reluctant to become involved in other people’s affairs that they will stand by and see a fellow man beaten or even killed without intervening. Yet those very same non-Samaritans readily join in great numbers to make other people’s decisions for them, meddle in their business, force them to act "for their own good."
JAMES C. PATRICK, Decatur, Illinois