All Commentary
Sunday, April 1, 2001

Reflections on Self-Responsibility and Libertarianism

We Now Live in a Nation of Dependents Who Cannot Imagine a Life Without Government Support, Involvement, and Regulation

The traditional American values of individualism, self-reliance, self-discipline, and hard work had their roots, in part, in the fact that this country began as a frontier nation where nothing was given and everything had to be created. To be sure, most Americans exhibited a strong sense of community, and they certainly practiced mutual aid. But this was not seen as a substitute for self-responsibility. Independent people helped one another when they could, but everyone was expected to carry his or her own weight. People were not encouraged to believe they enjoyed special “entitlements.”

The Declaration of Independence proclaimed the revolutionary idea that a human being had a right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. This meant not that he or she was owed anything by others, but rather that others—including the government—were to respect the individual’s freedom and the inviolability of his or her person. It is only by the use of force or fraud (which is an indirect form of force) that human rights can be infringed, and it was force and fraud that were, in principle, barred from human relationships.

This rejection of the initiation of force in human relationships was the translation into political and social reality of the eighteenth-century precept of natural rights—that is, rights held by individuals not as a gift from the state but rather by virtue of being human. This idea was one of the great achievements of the Enlightenment.

The principle of inalienable rights was never adhered to with perfect consistency. The U.S. government claimed the privilege of certain exceptions from the very beginning. And yet the principle remained the guiding vision of the American system. For a long time, it was what America stood for: Freedom. Individualism. Private property. The right to the pursuit of happiness. Self-ownership. The individual as an end in himself, not a means to the ends of others, and not the property of family or church or state or society.

Lord Acton observed, “Liberty is not a means to a higher political end. It is itself the highest political end.” This premise is what America was perceived to stand for and embody. The United States was the first country in the history of the world to be consciously created out of an idea—and the idea was liberty.

Observe that the inalienable rights on which this system was based were negative rights in that they were not claims on anyone else’s energy or production. In effect, they merely proclaimed, “Hands off!” They made no demands on others except to abstain from coercion. I may not impose my wishes or ideas on you by force, and you may not impose yours on me. Human dealings are to be voluntary. We are to deal with one another by means of persuasion.

In the arena of political economy, the name given to this system in its purest, most consistent form was laissez-faire capitalism. In nineteenth-century America, with the development of a free-market society, people saw the sudden release of productive energy that previously had no outlet. They saw life made possible for countless millions who had little chance for survival in precapitalist economies. They saw mortality rates fall and population growth rates explode. They saw machines—the machines that many of them had cursed, opposed, and tried to destroy—cut their workday in half while multiplying the value and reward of their effort. They saw themselves lifted to a standard of living no feudal baron could have conceived. With the rapid development of science, technology, and industry, they saw for the first time in history the liberated mind taking control of material existence.

In the United States during the nineteenth century, productive activities were predominantly left free of government regulations, controls, and restrictions. True enough, there was always some government intervention into economic activities, and some businesspeople sought government favors to provide them with advantages against competitors that would have been impossible in a totally free market. (Businesspeople as a group have not been enthusiasts for true laissez-faire.) And there were other injustices reflecting inconsistency in protecting individual rights: the toleration of slavery and legal discrimination against women. But in the brief period of a century and a half, the United States created a level of freedom, of progress, of achievement, of wealth, and of physical comfort unmatched and unequaled by the total sum of mankind’s development up to that time.

Opening the Doors to Achievement

To the extent that various other countries adopted capitalism, the rule of brute force vanished from people’s lives. By closing the doors to force, capitalism threw them open to achievement. Rewards were tied to production, not to extortion; to ability, not to brutality; to the capacity for furthering life, not to that for inflicting death. For the first time in history, intelligence and enterprise had a broad social outlet—they had a market.

Much has been written about the harsh conditions of life during the early years of capitalism. When one considers the level of material existence from which capitalism raised people and the comparatively meager amount of wealth in the world when the Industrial Revolution began, what is startling is not the slowness with which capitalism liberated men and women from poverty, but the speed with which it did so.1 Once individuals were free to act, ingenuity and inventiveness proceeded to raise the standard of living to heights that a century earlier would have been judged fantastic.

But there was a price. A free society does not imagine that it can abolish all risk and uncertainty from human existence. It provides a context in which men and women can act, but it does not and cannot guarantee the results of any individual’s efforts. What it asks of people is self-responsibility.

The desire for security is entirely reasonable if it is understood to mean the security achieved through the legal protection of one’s rights and through one’s own savings, long-range planning, and the like. But life is an intrinsically risky business, and uncertainty is inherent in our existence. No security can ever be absolute.

This is accepted more readily if you have a decent level of self-esteem—that is, if you have fundamental confidence in your ability to cope with life’s challenges. But to the extent that self-esteem is lacking, then the self-responsibility that a free society requires can be terrifying. Instead, we may long for a guaranteed Garden-of-Eden existence in which all our needs are met by others. We can observe this attitude in the two main camps that opposed a free-market society in the nineteenth century: the medievalists and the socialists. Longing for some version of a resurrected feudal order, the medievalists dreamed of abolishing the Industrial Revolution. They found spiritually repugnant the disintegration of feudal aristocracy, the sudden appearance of fortune makers from backgrounds of poverty and obscurity, and the emphasis on merit, productive ability, and above all, the pursuit of profit. They longed for a return to a status society. “Commerce and business of any kind,” wrote John Ruskin, “may be the invention of the devil.”

The socialists wished not to abolish the Industrial Revolution but to take it over—to retain the effect—material prosperity—while eliminating the cause—political and economic freedom. They cursed the “cold impersonality” of the marketplace and the “cruelty” of the law of supply and demand, and above all they cursed the pursuit of profit. They proposed to substitute the benevolence of a commissar.

In the writings of both we can distinguish the longing for a society in which everyone’s existence is automatically guaranteed—that is, in which no one bears responsibility for his existence and well-being. Both camps characterized their ideal society by freedom from rapid change or challenge, or from the exacting demands of competition. It was a society in which each must do his prescribed part to contribute to the well-being of the whole, but in which no one faced the necessity of making choices that crucially affected his life and future. It was a society in which rewards were not related to achievement and in which someone’s benevolence assured that you never had to bear responsibility for the consequences of your errors. The sin of capitalism, in the eyes of its critics, was that it did not deliver this protection.

While capitalism offered spectacular improvements in the standard of living and undreamed-of opportunities for the ambitious and adventuresome, it did not offer relief from self-responsibility. It counted on it. It was a system geared to individuals who trusted themselves—trusted their minds and judgment—and who believed that the pursuit of achievement and happiness was their birthright. It was a system geared to self-esteem.

The Evolution of Rights

In the earlier years of our history, when people spoke of rights they meant either the actual rights described above or their derivatives, as spelled out in the Constitution and Bill of Rights. Or they meant contractually acquired rights, such as the right to take possession of a piece of property you have purchased. In the first two instances, the primary focus was on protecting the individual citizen against the government. Insofar as these rights pertained to relationships in the private sector, the sole obligation of people was to abstain from using force or fraud in their interactions with others. In the case of contractually acquired rights, the sole obligation was to honor your agreements and commitments. No great drain on the public treasury was required to secure such rights—nothing remotely approaching a third or half of one’s income. The cost of government’s performing this function was marginal.

But in the twentieth century, a new notion of rights became fashionable that negated the earlier ones. Ironically, it was the very success of the American system that made this development possible. As our society became wealthier, it began to be argued that people were “entitled” to all sorts of things that would have been unthinkable earlier. One hundred years ago, few would have suggested that everyone had a “right” to “adequate housing” or “the best available health care.” It was understood that housing and health care were economic goods and, like all economic goods, had to be produced by someone. They were not free gifts of nature and did not exist in unlimited supply. Now, however, at the sight of our growing prosperity, intellectuals and politicians credited not freedom but the government for the new wealth. And they began to declare that government could do more than merely guarantee the protection of rights and establish a more or less level playing field, which was the original American idea but which now seemed too modest a goal. Government could become an agency for achieving any social goal thought to be desirable. In the growing enthusiasm for government regulation, planning, and expanded “services,” especially since the 1930s, it was not a long step from “it would be desirable” to “people are entitled.” Desires thus became rights.

For example, if a man wanted to be a farmer, then under the philosophy of Roosevelt’s New Deal the fact that his farm could not support itself need not be an impediment: Agricultural subsidies could make his desire attainable. Of course, to correct the “mistakes” of free-market capitalism, political coercion became necessary. For wealth to be “redistributed,” first it must be created and then it must be expropriated. Citizens’ taxes paid the farm subsidies. These subsidies had the effect of driving up the cost of farm products, for which, again, citizens paid. Their rights were expendable. Whenever artificial “rights” are enforced by a government, genuine rights inevitably are scarified.

Under pure capitalism—that is, a system based on the inviolability of individual rights—a farm that could not maintain itself in a free market could not remain in existence. Under an increasingly “mixed economy,” the impossible became possible by transferring to others the burden of one’s failures, which the government alone had the power to enforce. This particular program was introduced by a Democrat, but for a very long time it was hard to find a Republican politician—notwithstanding all the free-enterprise rhetoric—who would dare challenge the sacred cow of farm subsidies (or some other form of financial aid), since so many of these farmers were (and are) Republicans.

Undermining Self-Responsibility

I shall not attempt to retrace the steps by which the United States moved from something close to laissez faire to the extravagantly regulated system we have today. Here, I want to focus on the role the government has played in undermining respect for self-responsibility in our society—and in creating a nation of dependents who can no longer imagine a life without government support, involvement, and regulation. (German Chancellor Otto von Bismarck, generally credited as being the father of the welfare state, clearly articulated the understanding that the way to build a base of political power was to create a nation of dependents on government “benevolence.”)

Under a mixed economy, government intervention can take many forms, but the essential pattern is always the same: the violation of the rights of some (or all) individuals in the name of allegedly serving the interests of a particular group.

I say “allegedly” because the welfare programs were intended to solve problems that have worsened steadily since the legislation was enacted. This is made devastatingly clear in such powerful critiques of our welfare system as Charles Murray’s Losing Ground.

The world of government operates very differently from the world of business. In business, when millions of dollars are poured into a project that does not deliver on any of the promises of its advocates, the project is typically dropped and the judgment of its advocates is reassessed. Not having unlimited resources, business is obliged to pay attention to outcome. Failure is a signal to go back to the drawing board. In the world of welfare, entitlement programs, and “social engineering” overseen by bureaucrats with the business acumen of social workers, outcome is less important than intentions.

Never mind that the underclass expanded, rather than diminished, as the programs expanded. Never mind that the most important economic gains made by African-Americans took place before President Lyndon Johnson’s civil rights legislation, that many black leaders say that the situation has worsened since, that government policies and programs have encouraged millions of people to think of themselves as helpless children for whom dependence on the state is a necessity. Never mind that our “humanitarian” tax laws and welfare system (though reformed somewhat in recent years2) have played a major role in the breakup of black families by financially penalizing a family that remains intact and rewarding one in which the husband departs. (The absence of a male figure in the household has been tied to young people’s disposition to crime, teenage pregnancy, and drug addiction.) Never mind that the people the programs were designed to help have fallen farther and farther behind. Never mind that our welfare/entitlement programs have created a nation of dependents. If our motive is compassion for the unfortunate, it seems we do not have to be concerned with those whose rights are sacrificed to pay for it—nor what kind of personal and social outcomes we produce.

The message of our welfare system has been that we are not responsible for our lives and well-being. The message of our legal system is that we are not responsible for our actions. (Has getting away with murder ever been easier in a civilized society?) The message of our political leaders throughout most of this century is that if they are elected, ways can always be found to transfer the burden of our needs and our mistakes to someone else.

That last message is the essence of a mixed economy. Such a system means government by pressure groups, a state of affairs in which various gangs (“special interests”) compete for control of the machinery of government to win legislation providing them with the particular favors or protections they seek, always justified, needless to say, by ritualistic references to “the common good.”

Our government has poured into regulatory agencies, welfare programs, and every imaginable kind of statist intervention trillions of dollars that in private hands could have been put to productive use. What we have to show for it is a society characterized by:

  • Increasing polarization between every kind of social faction;
  • Massive, inarticulate rage against and suspicion of anyone who does not share our opinions;
  • Widespread cynicism;
  • Escalating conflict between young and old (provoked by the Social Security program, among other things);
  • Increasing conflict among ethnic groups;
  • An intractable underclass, nurtured by intellectuals who advocate more of the poison that is killing it—the politics of victimology and entitlement.

Government is not the sole cause of these problems, although its contribution has been enormous. A fact avoided by our political world is that all the social evils government intervention was supposed to ameliorate have grown steadily worse in direct proportion to the degree of the intervention.

Am I suggesting that no social group has improved its circumstances over the past half-dozen decades? Of course not. What I am saying is that government efforts were not responsible, despite the self-congratulatory propaganda to the contrary.

During the 1980s, for example, women enjoyed historically unprecedented gains in wages, in entry into such traditional male professions as business, law, and medicine, and in education. According to studies by three women economists reported in the New York Times, in that one decade women made almost as much progress as in the preceding 90 years. This was principally due to economic forces that drew more and more women into the marketplace, and also to shifts in our values regarding women’s role in the world. In other words, these gains were in the voluntary domain, not the coercive (political) domain.

West Indian blacks in the United States, who come from a background of intact families, respect for hard work, and an ethic of self-responsibility, have not typically looked to the government for special forms of political protection and favoritism. They take any work available, often beginning on the lowest levels, just to get started in the economy; they may begin on low levels, but they do not remain there. They rise as fast or faster than many whites. “Second-generation West Indians have higher incomes than whites,” reports economist Thomas Sowell in his illuminating study Ethnic America. Furthermore, he writes, “As of 1969 . . . [w]hile native blacks had an unemployment rate above the national average, West Indian blacks had an unemployment rate beneath the national average.” They are a walking refutation of standard explanations of poverty among blacks primarily in terms of racial discrimination. They sometimes look with quiet scorn on those African-Americans for whom their victimhood, helplessness, and necessary dependency are axioms, and who regard low-paying, menial jobs as beneath their dignity but do not regard welfare is beneath it. (It should also be said that there are many African-Americans who share the West Indian perspective.) Both groups are black, but the difference in how far and how fast they rise is an issue of differences in their culture and values. A mindset of self-responsibility is not a peripheral but a central issue here.

As to those who are genuinely in trouble and not merely cashing in on the philosophy of entitlement, do I believe it a proper human goal to alleviate suffering and offer a helping hand? Of course. There are, however, many things I am in favor of that I do not see as proper functions of a government. Charity is one of them. The question is not whether one believes in benevolence and mutual aid. The question is whether one thinks in terms of voluntary choice or governmental coercion. Kindness is a virtue, to be sure. But it is not grounds for sacrificing individual rights. Nothing is. And it is one of the many intellectual ironies and disgraces of our age that those who protest coercion are called “cruel” and “reactionary,” while those who embrace it are called “compassionate” and “progressive.”

There is nothing compassionate or progressive about imposing one’s values on others at the point of a gun. And that, ultimately, is what we are talking about, however it is rationalized and dressed up to sound “liberal” and “enlightened.”

The ideal of self-responsibility in no way forbids us to help one another, within limits, in times of need. As noted, Americans have a long tradition of doing this. We are the most charitable people in the world. This is not a contradiction but a natural result of the fact that ours is the first and still the only country in history to proclaim the right to selfishness in “the pursuit of happiness.” The happiness the Declaration of Independence refers to is our own. In proclaiming and defending our right to pursue our own self-interest, to live for our own sake, the American system released the innate generosity in everyone (when they are not treated as objects of sacrifice). It is interesting to observe that during the 1980s, the so-called “decade of greed,” Americans gave more than twice the amount to charity they had given in the previous decade, in spite of changes in the tax laws that made giving less advantageous. Our private, not-for-profit organizations—the Boy Scouts and Girl Scouts, the Salvation Army, churches, not-for-profit hospitals, and philanthropic agencies of every conceivable kind—perform benevolent work far more extensive than in any other country.

What needs to be challenged in our country today is not the desirability of helping people in difficulty (intelligently and without self-sacrifice), but rather the belief that it is permissible to abrogate individual rights to achieve our social goals. We must stop looking for some new use of force every time we encounter something that upsets us or arouses our pity.

We hear a great deal about the need for a “greater sense of community.” Government by pressure group is the antagonist of community. This is why I stress that individualism and self-responsibility are the necessary foundation for true community. If we are free of each other, we can approach each other with good will. We do not have to be afraid. We do not have to view each other as potential objects of sacrifice, nor view ourselves as potential meals on someone else’s plate. If we live in a culture that upholds the principle that we are responsible for our actions and the fulfillment of our desires, and if coercion is not an option in the furtherance of our aims, then we have the best possible context for the triumph of community, benevolence, and mutual esteem.

Are there now and will there continue to be severe social problems challenging our resourcefulness, inventiveness, and ingenuity? Yes. Will other people sometimes make choices we can neither agree with nor admire? Inevitably. That is the nature of life. But a culture of self-responsibility is not just the best chance we have to create a decent world. It is the only chance.


  1. For example, with respect to the impact of the Industrial Revolution and capitalism in England, a 1983 study by Peter Lindert and Jeffrey Williamson found that the real wages of English blue-collar workers doubled between 1819 and 1851.
  2. See Norman Barry, “The Never-Ending Welfare Debate,” Ideas on Liberty, March 2001, pp. 19-23.