There is no disagreement between liberals and conservatives regarding the importance of personal responsibility, in spite of what conservatives think. Both agree it is one of the fundamental factors, the glue, that holds our country together. Every person must be responsible for his own fate. No one is excused from contributing to the common welfare by working to support his family and keep it strong. The only exceptions are for people who, because of disability from illness or injury, simply do not have the ability to work. It is our responsibility, as a moral democracy, to be sure that such persons don’t suffer unduly.
Conservatives have come to believe that there are large numbers of people of color who have no intention of working to support their families. Instead, they concoct illegal schemes that extract large sums of money from the public purse so they can live a life of luxury at our expense. Ronald Reagan invented a “Welfare Cadillac Queen” from whole cloth to attract Southern racist voters. She was supposed to have a vast collection of identities and imaginary husbands and children, each of which she used to bilk the government of money. This person is alive and well in the only place she ever existed, in the minds of those who want to believe such fantasies.
A very recent update on the same theme came from Newt Gingrich, that moral, ethical and intellectual paragon, who claims that people who collect food vouchers sell them and use the cash to vacation in Hawaii. Let’s see: fare for two to Honolulu, $1000; hotel 7 nights, $1400; food and entertainment, $700. Total: $3100, probably more. So food vouchers at $133/mo. would pay for this vacation in just under two years. A clever use of them; perhaps Newt can explain how this might happen. It would be futile for reporters to try to track down some of these people, because they exist only in the fevered imagination of Newt Gingrich, who is mining the same racist lode Reagan mined.
Such racist beliefs are very difficult to dislodge because they fall into well established tracks in the brains of people who believe that there are hordes of irresponsible people of color who want nothing more from life than to live on welfare payments. Such people forget that living on welfare is poverty, and it’s not fun, but the deep tracks are already there, and will not fade.
Many conservatives also believe that if misfortune befalls you, it can only be because of a primary flaw in your moral makeup. This is just another way of saying that wealth proves moral worth, and therefore great wealth proves great moral worth. When the market crashes, taking with it the jobs, savings, and homes of millions upon millions of Americans, it becomes harder to blame people’s misfortunes on some inborn fault they have. It’s pretty hard to explain why a family who did everything right for three decades, and now finds itself living out of a van, harbored that fatal flaw all that time, yet exhibited all the strengths of all-American personal responsibility up until the crash.
Something else must be at fault, conservatives reasoned. They looked at government expense over the past few decades, and saw a huge rise that paralleled George Bush’s administration and continued afterward. That could only mean the uncontrolled expansion of government costs, which must be reined in by the dissolution of all parts of the governmental apparatus that are not important. What they don’t look at is the weekly billions Mr. Bush’s two elective wars cost, and continue to cost. Among the expenses they think we could do without are the departments of Education, Environment, Social Security, Medicare and a slew of regulating agencies. Nor do they see the market crash of 2008 as anything other than irresponsible government spending. Reckless gambling by Wall Street banksters somehow doesn’t really count.
This irrational acceptance of unsupportable beliefs is unfortunate, because it obscures an area of fundamental agreement between liberals and conservatives, that of the importance of personal responsibility.