Why Individual Responsibility Makes Bad Policy

One of the basic principles of conservatism is that of individual responsibility. My belief is that it differs from liberal beliefs only in the relative primacy conservatives give it. After all, who could possibly be against personal responsibility? But it makes for lousy policy. Personal responsibility is important, very important, but it has nothing to do with government, and that’s why it makes for poor public policy.

The problem with the conservative insistence on the primacy of personal responsibility as policy is that there is no reciprocal factor within government. Government policy can create adverse conditions for you that your personal responsibility cannot overcome; you have no countervailing power over government other than the distant mechanism of voting. Personal responsibility does not protect you from the bad policy that created the present unemployment, and your inability to find a job does not come from a weakness of personality.

Herbert Hoover became president at the dawn of the Great Depression. He was thoroughly conservative, and failed to do what would have short-circuited the Depression: giving citizens the money that would have restored national economic health by building demand for goods and bringing in tax revenue. He was afraid that “the dole” would become addictive.

Physicians have found that patients do not become addicted to opiates when they are really in pain. Citizens in economic pain don’t become addicted to public assistance either. That would seem to be obvious, if only for the reason that “the dole” ain’t much, but today we are doing exactly the same thing Hoover did during the Depression, and so is the European Union. We are instead choosing this most inopportune moment to try to deal with budget and debt problems by slashing spending. We are trying to cure the loss of tax revenue by doing things that create more unemployment and lower wages, and therefore lower tax revenue.

As one wit said, “Beatings will continue until morale improves”.

A few days ago we were treated to the spectacle of an arrogant conservative politician addressing a constituent about her company’s failure to provide retirement benefits. “At what point do I begin to take personal responsibility”, he said, to rousing cheers. This, from someone who is paid $174,000 a year from our tax money, whose full health coverage is paid for by us! He said nothing about the $10 per hour of full time wage it takes just to pay for family health insurance, or the additional minimum of $15 per hour to provide for retirement. He said nothing about the three decades of eroding wage caused by Republican adventures, or about the current crisis that has devastated millions. He saw only that this woman refused to take personal responsibility for her plight, ignoring the fact that it was caused by political-economic irresponsibility.

It’s rather like blaming someone who has been shot for bleeding on the carpet. We should look for the shooter, the cause, not blame the victim in his agony. The cause will not be found in a failure of individual responsibility. Nor can personal responsibility be the cure.

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2 CommentsLeave a comment

  1. Coolidge did most assuredly not become president “at the dawn of the Great Depression”. He became president in mid-1923, when no one could or did foresee anything like that on the horizon; he presided over 6 fantastically prosperous years. Quite rightly, he focused on reducing the crippling debt left over from WWI, and he did put money in the pockets of the people in the best way, by lowering income taxes. I submit that if his hapless successor Hoover had followed this path, the depression would have been a small hiccup.

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  2. I stand corrected. I was thinking of Hoover and got distracted by a reference to Coolidge.

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