All Commentary
Monday, July 1, 1996

Rejecting Responsibility

The Actions of Well-Intentioned Do-Gooders Continue to Plague Us

Mr. Madden is an instructor in communication at Mt. Mercy College in Cedar Rapids, Iowa.

At a recent family gathering my father and I happened to discuss some of the problems facing Social Security.

My 71-year-old dad received partial disability benefits before retiring and also claims veterans’ benefits from a wound he suffered in Europe during World War II. During our conversation, I pointed out that no actual funds existed in the so-called Social Security Trust Fund. The government simply spends on current expenses whatever excess revenues it gathers. The fund consists of nothing more than IOU’s which would never be fully repaid. Despite impressions to the contrary, there is no saving or investing involved in Social Security, only spending and consuming.

I told my father that—though I rejected State-mandated retirement programs—adopting a plan similar to one instituted in Argentina or Chile would be a step in the right direction. By privatizing Social Security to that extent, each taxpayer would have money set aside directly for himself which could be invested and earn interest over his working lifetime. Rather than having the government simply waste Social

Security taxes, each citizen would have at least a degree of control over the funds invested for him. As has been pointed out elsewhere, over a 50-year career, even a minimum-wage earner could retire a millionaire. Wealthy individuals would fare even better.

My dad complained that people could not be trusted even under this suggested coercive system. He believed that given half a chance, people would pillage their retirement funds and squander those resources while young.

This answer echoed one I had heard from a friend of mine who is in his eighties. Like my father, he felt the government should handle the funds that so many citizens rely upon for retirement. Ignoring the fact that the federal government is hardly an exemplar of prudence in financial affairs, I supposed that perhaps the similar attitudes expressed by these two men reflected some kind of generational, Depression-era mentality.

That notion found itself knocked askew at a dinner party where I talked with the host about the issue of welfare. This man is in many ways the opposite of my father. My dad never finished high school, is a former truck driver, and has little interest in philosophical discussions. My host was in his mid-forties, has been a professor at a local college for nearly two decades, and spends much of his time discussing intellectual issues.

During our pre-dinner conversation, I argued against welfare for either individuals or corporations. After establishing the social principle of rejecting the initiation of force, I said that only voluntary interactions were proper. Government’s only legitimate function was to retaliate against those who violate our rights. Under no circumstances should the State itself act coercively in compelling citizens to engage in behavior that violates rights.

My host countered with a common question: what are we to do about those who can’t take care of themselves?

Whether people accept it or not, I said, as adults, we are all responsible for our own lives. Charity is available for those truly in need, but those down on their luck can only ask for help; they cannot demand it. Need is not a claim on wealth. “Forced charity” is a contradiction in terms. Whatever is done, the action must not violate someone’s rights.

In examining the responses of my dad and my dinner host, I see two men different in background and separated by nearly three decades in age yet united in their belief that the State should hold the ultimate responsibility for the lives and fortunes of its citizens. As the final safety net, it must guide and control those who will not—or “cannot”—accept the reins of their own destinies. Even though my father and those like him see themselves as self-responsible, they do not think the “other guy” is capable of directing his own affairs according to his own best judgment and actions.

Defenders of freedom, however, have long contended—as I did in these encounters—that much of the political strife we face today would end if individuals accepted responsibility for their own lives and did not expect others to take care of them.

That sentiment is correct as far as it goes, but such an analysis covers only half the story. Conservatives in Congress call for personal accountability yet are not shy about forcing people to act in ways the politicians see as typifying such behavior. As with my dad, many private citizens see it as their responsibility to ensure that others are also responsible—not by assuming that role themselves on a one-on-one, face-to-face basis but by delegating that impersonal watchdog status to their favorite guardian of propriety, the State.

Being Responsible

What politicians and those sharing the views of my father and dinner host fail to realize, however, is that there is a distinction between engaging in responsible behavior and being responsible. Morally, we all should act responsibly. Also, morally, we all are responsible for our own existences, whether we behave responsibly or not. Politically, however, the State should concern itself only with the latter. When the government steps beyond the boundary of acknowledging the self-responsibility of each individual and instead seeks to force its citizens to act responsibly, it is itself behaving, well, irresponsibly.

As Nathaniel Branden once observed, no one plays the helplessness game on a desert island. Alone, a person must either acknowledge and accept the reality of his self-responsibility or he must die. Only in a social situation can a person pretend that his beliefs, his actions, his destiny can be directed or caused by someone else. In the context of the present discussion, however, the essential point to remember is that such evasion can succeed only to the extent that others accept and take on that ignored responsibility.

As important as the recognition and acceptance of self-responsibility are morally, politically, the failure to reject responsibility that is not theirs is the stone over which all current “reformers” must stumble. Only when people appropriately delimit what rightly belongs to their spheres of personal responsibility—and what does not—will the “helpless” face the full consequences of trying to avoid the requirements of reality. Only when the national political debate takes into account the problems arising from well-intentioned meddling will actual reform occur. Only when each of us realizes precisely what personal responsibility entails—and where it ends—will true freedom be established in this country.

Adults must be able to act in ways that are objectively foolish, silly, or harmful as long as they respect the rights of others. As much as a person may cringe to witness the self- destructive behavior of others, he must respect the moral autonomy of those people and not impose his own standards on them. What is permissible or even desirable between parents and their children must be rejected when dealing with those who are not family members. Contrary to the wishes and words of so many in this country today, we are not all “part of one big family,” we are not our “brothers’ keepers,” we are not “children” subject to the dictates and punishing hand of a governmental “parent” who must ascertain and obtain what is in our best interest. Those and similar communitarian metaphors are fundamentally flawed.

In the modern parlance, an “enabler” is someone who inappropriately accepts responsibility for another person’s life and creates the conditions that allow that person to continue in self-destructive actions without facing the full negative consequences of such behavior. On every level, the state is the biggest enabler of all time. Government “over-functions” when it makes it easier for people to abrogate their obligations, to slide along while others pay for their mistakes.

Pragmatists and Moralists

Any number of reasons may explain the desire of some individuals to direct others’ lives. For some, “pragmatic” considerations of maintaining power, position, or prestige demand that a substantial number of citizens not accept personal responsibility. If no such group of “helpless” or “misguided” souls existed, no justification could be offered for most bureaucrats’ jobs. Not only their perks but also their livelihoods would disappear. Others who champion the State may require a pool of people to “help” in order to feel superior or to feel good about themselves.

Yet even more dangerous than the “pragmatists” are those who seek to manage the lives of the unfortunate or incompetent or lazy because of “moral” considerations. The pragmatists might be convinced to abandon their positions if they could be shown other avenues offering better prospects. The moralists, however, will stick to their course no matter how much destruction their activities create. Though both groups depend on suffering and the prolonging of pain for their raison d’etre, those who hold selfless service to others as their moral imperative have more to fear from a society in which the guiding political principle is rejection of inappropriate responsibility. The altruist descendants of Comte or Kant would find moral behavior impossible in a culture in which every person refused to violate the moral autonomy of any other individual. When a purported moral system leads to such a self-contradiction, it must be in error.

Acceptance of that very error, however, still permeates the political landscape of the world. Refusal to reject responsibility for the mistakes and misfortunes of other people sends our troops to hopeless hot spots around the globe. It creates and perpetuates the modern welfare state. It subverts our system of justice and gives rise to a criminal class unprecedented in this century. It demeans the dignity of not only those who evade the mantle of their personal responsibility but also the dignity of those who stoop to pick it up.

Knowing when to reject responsibility for the life of any other individual is a skill most people have yet to learn. Until that lesson is well mastered, the painful consequences flowing from the actions of the well-intentioned do-gooders of the world will continue to plague us.