All Commentary
Saturday, June 1, 1963

Reflections on Individual Responsibility

Mr. Thornton is a businessman in Covington, Kentucky.

Ideas of free will and individual responsibility have come under heavy assault during the past cen­tury. Marxists insist that man is determined by the modes of pro­duction; psychoanalysts declare that childhood experiences or sex­ual inhibitions determine the man; genes, say the biologists; condi­tioned reflexes, say the behavior­ists; social forces, say the collec­tivists; playground facilities and parents, say the environmental­ists. One thing these varied groups have in common: each de­nies that man is free and, there­fore, properly held responsible for his words and deeds. After a kill­ing or some other terrible crime takes place, it is not uncommon to hear people say the fault is soci­ety’s and not the criminal’s. Man is merely the victim of determin­ing forces over which he has little control.

This relatively new concept of man has, of course, not gone un­challenged. In 1961 Dr. Thomas S. Szasz published his The Myth of Mental Illness (New York, Hoeber­Harper), and Psychiatry and Responsibility (a symposium edit­ed by Helmut Schoeck and James W. Wiggins and published by D. Van Nostrand) appeared in 1962. Both books relate numerous sub­jects to psychiatry, and the for­mer goes pretty deep into psychi­atric theory and practice. Never­theless, they are not without in­terest to the libertarian reader. The profession of psychiatry has become institutionalized, and thus subject to the three “laws” that afflict every human organization. These “laws,” as Albert Jay Nock formulated them, run as follows: First, more and more persons see in psychiatry a way to satisfy their needs and desires with the least possible exertion (Epstean’s Law); the entrance of opportun­ists drives out those motivated bynobler ideas (Gresham’s Law); fi­nally, less and less good is achieved by greater and greater expendi­tures of time and money (Law of Diminishing Returns). Dr. Szasz, himself a practicing psychiatrist, seeks to separate the real truths of psychiatry from the heavy crust of dogma that has grown up around them as a consequence of these three “laws.” And both books speak out emphatically against any denial of individual responsibility which seeks support in psychiatry.

A Secularized Society

The denial of individual respon­sibility is but another sign of the trend toward a completely secu­larized society. It accounts for the prevalent belief of today that one individual does not count for much, that he is of no consequence in the immense universe man is beginning to explore. Thus, man feels himself a helpless pawn in a cruel game. It was not always so: “Our ancestors believed that each man counted because they knew that each man was account­able. In the religious faith they professed, the individual had to render an account of his life be­fore God, and therefore he was, in his own and in his fellow’s eyes, a responsible being. These are the convictions we must recover; that each of us counts, that each of us is responsible, that what we do or don’t do with our lives can mean victory or defeat for the things that matter most for us and our posterity.” (E. A. Opitz) ¹

To carry this point a bit further we might add that our ancestors sought to achieve no more than a tolerable justice on earth, believ­ing that only before God would they receive perfect justice. To­day, God is denied by an increas­ing number of persons — especially among the so-called intellectuals —and there is a striving to fashion a heaven on earth by political means.

We have spoken of the person who does not wish to be held re­sponsible for his acts and of those who would relieve the rest of us of responsibility. But what of the person who accepts full responsi­bility for his words and deeds but is judged not responsible by the authorities? In the past decade or so there have been several cases where authorities have questioned the sanity of persons who spoke out against certain acts of the fed­eral government. Now, it is all very well to declare a man wrong if he opposes, say, the federal in­come tax, but it is preposterous —and highly dangerous — to judge him insane or mentally incompetent because he does so. This smacks of Inquisition days when dissenters were punished as here­tics. Dr. Szasz deals with this sub­ject in a recent National Review article as did Dr. Lewis Albert Alesen in his Mental Robots (Cax­ton Printers, Ltd. 1957).

Of course, modern-day heretics will not be punished in the usual ways—imprisonment, torture, fine, or execution — for after all, they cannot help what they did; they are but pawns at the mercy of forces beyond their control ! So they will be locked up for “treat­ment” for unspecified lengths of time. And as in Franz Kafka’s powerful novel, The Trial, the vic­tims probably will have no specific charges placed against them and no one to whom they may appeal. It is not fanciful to predict that in the attempt to see a mythical “per­fect justice” done, large numbers of people will lose their rights al­together (always the consequence of denying responsibility) and that actual injustices will be com­monplace.

The State Will Fill the Void

Now if individual responsibility is denied, what is to take its place? The vacuum will be filled, no doubt about that ! The late Carl Jung, one of the most eminent of con­temporary psychiatrists, had this to say:

“The moral responsibility of the individual is then inevitably replaced by the policy of the state (raison d’etat). Instead of moral and mental differentiation of the individual, you have public wel­fare and the raising of the living standard. The goal and meaning of the individual (which is the only real life) no longer lie in in­dividual development but in the policy of the state, which is thrust upon the individual from outside and consists in the execution of an abstract idea which ultimately tends to attract all life to itself. The individual is increasingly de­prived of the moral decision as to how he should live his own life, and instead is ruled, fed, clothed, and educated as a social unit, ac­commodated in the appropriate housing unit, and amused in ac­cordance with the standards that give pleasure and satisfaction to the masses….

“Under these circumstances it is small wonder that individual judgment grows increasingly un­certain of itself and that responsi­bility is collectivized as much as possible, i.e., is shuffled off by the individual and delegated to a cor­porate body. . . .

“In this way,” Jung goes on to say, “the individual becomes more and more a function of society, which in its turn usurps the func­tion of the real life carrier, where­as, in actual fact, society is noth­ing more than an abstract idea like the state. Both are hyposta­tized, that is, have become autono­mous. The state in particular is turned into a quasi-animate per­sonality from whom everything is expected. In reality it is only a camouflage for those individuals who know how to manipulate it. Thus the constitutional state drifts into the situation of a prim­itive tribe where everybody is sub­ject to the autocratic rule of a chief or an oligarchy.” (The Undiscovered Self. Little, Brown & Co., 1957)

Unless there is a recovery of in­dividual responsibility, it is hard to envisage any other outcome.


¹ “The Recovery of Individual Respon­sibility,” Christian Economics, Jan. 22, 1963.




Ideas on Liberty

Woodrow Wilson

The history of liberty is a history of the limitation of govern­mental power, not the increase of it. When we resist, therefore, the concentration of power, we are resisting the processes of death, because concentration of power is what always precedes the destruction of human liberties.

  • Mark Thornton is an American economist of the Austrian School. He has written on the topic of prohibition of drugs, the economics of the American Civil War, and the "Skyscraper Index". He is a member of the FEE Faculty Network.