Personal Responsibility: A Brief Survey

David C. Huff is chief financial officer of an Atlanta-based manufacturers’ representative.

“Freedom cannot be separated from responsibility.”

—Henry Grady Weaver

The idea of personal responsibility lies at the heart of a free society. When responsibilities are shunned at the individual level, there is an eventual impact on all those around us.

Let us examine some examples from key areas of public policy. In each case it should be clear, as Henry Grady Weaver has noted, that “Any attempt to give to government the responsibilities which properly belong to the individual citizens works at cross-purposes to the advancement of personal freedom. It retards progress—morally as well as along the lines of greater productivity."[1]

Before the beginning of government-support-ed education, parents fulfilled the duties of training their children in a variety of ways. While home schooling and church-based schools were common, education was also available through educational missionary societies, especially for the poor.

Interestingly, private and home schools haven’t been eradicated by today’s massive network of state- controlled education. One reason is that private education is responsive to the demands of the market—its survival is dependent upon its performance. If a particular school isn’t educating students effectively, it will be replaced by one of better quality.

Educators in private schools tend to have more time to devote to teaching, meeting the requirements of parents rather than those of the education bureaucracy. Such a focus will always produce a better product—in this case, a quality education.

When parents began to delegate educational responsibilities to the government, a decline soon followed. A variety of educational options were lost through standardization; academic excellence gave way to decreasing quality; freedom of mobility and choice became hindered by such tactics as busing.

Probably the most sobering aspect of what happens to freedom when the personal responsibility for education is handed over to the state is the issue of authority. As Gary North has written:

Naturally, parents have to delegate responsibility to someone. Few parents have the time or skills to educate their children at home. But the fundamental principle of education is the tutor . . . . Parents hire specialists to teach their children along fines established by parents. The private school is simply an extension of this principle, with several parents hiring a tutor, thereby sharing the costs. But the parents, not the tutor, are institutionally sovereign. Since sovereignty must bear the costs, education should be parent-financed. Anything else is a transfer of authority over education to an imitation family.[2]

Since the transfer of authority involves the transfer of control, the impact of our decisions in the area of education warrants serious examination.

Our prisons, and indeed our entire criminal justice system, would benefit greatly from a stronger emphasis upon personal responsibility. A philosophy of offender rehabilitation which simply attributes criminal acts to the “environment,” while concentrating resources primarily on building more prisons, misses the crucial issues of responsibility and restitution. This helps explain the failure of most prisons to reform their inmates for a successful return to society.

The weaknesses inherent in such environmental determinism should be replaced by policies that require convicts to make adequate restitution to their victims whenever possible. Financial restitution, for instance, could be paid by the prisoner from his earnings through work in some type of prison industry. Coupled with sentencing that accurately reflects the degree of offense, thereby teaching accountability, such a program would encourage lasting rehabilitation based on personal responsibility.

As Charles Colson has pointed out: “. . . working with the purpose of paying back someone you have wronged allows a criminal to understand and deal with the real consequences of his actions . . . . Studies of model restitution programs demonstrate that they greatly reduce the incidence of further crime, since they restore a sense of individual responsibility, thus making the offender more likely to be able to adjust to society.”[3]

The trend away from personal responsibility has also become evident in the health care and social service fields, where the state is increasingly viewed as a surrogate parent owing benefits to its citizen-children. Attempting to fulfill these demanding expectations, governments at all levels churn out program after program- Social Security, welfare, food stamps, Medicare, and the like.

This effort also generates an array of legislation aimed at businesses, forcing them to bear an increasing share of the costs of many forms of employee protection and benefits. In turn, these added expenses are passed along to consumers, both through outright price increases and bureaucracy-induced inefficiencies.

As with other services, health care and social welfare programs are most effectively provided by the private sector. Cotton Lindsay has written: “Long before governments took an active role in this area churches and charitable groups cared for the poor. I have seen no evidence that theft health or anyone else’s is better served now by our own or any other form of government medicine.”[4]

Few areas of public policy impact our daily lives in so many tangible ways, and yet are more misunderstood and debated, than the broad field of economics. But it is here that the principle of personal responsibility has especially wide application. For instance:

• One of the foundations of free enterprise is the incentive of profit, as well as the risk of loss, for the entrepreneur. The entrepreneur’s success or failure in the marketplace hinges on how responsibly he controls costs, manages workers, and guides his business toward satisfying the consumer. Government intervention or redistribution, in whatever form, hampers the accurate measure of a businessman’s effectiveness in these areas. This allows marginal businesses to stay afloat by avoiding the market’s consequences for their inefficiencies.

• Government unemployment programs are rife with abuse, allowing people to live off the state while taking an excessive amount of time to find employment. Such a situation rarely encourages workers to gain new, marketable skills, but it does allow responsibility to slip from the individual to the state.

• Taxation makes it difficult for many citizens to meet their personal financial responsibilities. As time passes, more and more families adopt an attitude of resignation, and fall back on government aid.

The concept of personal responsibility pervades every area of our public lives. Those who would promote the principles of freedom should always be alert to this concept, and seek to understand the importance of its application.

1.   Henry Grady Weaver, The Mainspring of Human Progress, (Foundation for Economic Education, 1953), p. 61.

2.   Gary North, Unconditional Surrender: God’s Program For Victory, 2nd ed. (Tyler, Texas: Geneva Divinity School Press, 1983), p. 95.

3.   Charles Colson, “Crime and Restitution,” Policy Review, No. 43 (Winter 1988), p. 18.

4.   Cotton Lindsay, Clemson University, quoted in “Medicare and the Myth of Equality,” by Mark D. Hughes, The Free Market (Ludwig von Mises Institute, September 1988), p. 3.

Further Reading