Personal Responsibility and Self-Interest

Personal responsibility is one of the rallying cries of conservative Republicanism. Everybody must man up, step up to the plate, and take care of everyone entrusted to you. (For the most part, women and children are expected to be taken care of, so for them it’s not central.)

Self-interest is one of the talking points of classical economics. According to the usual oversimplification, everyone acts solely in his own financial interest, yet the “invisible hand” of the market smooths it all out, providing for all.

Everybody must man up.

Both of these polished old chestnuts are pretty much nonsense as they are usually interpreted, and in fact, the two are pretty close to identical in some respects. To begin with, we would be hard pressed to find a single person who promotes an ethic of irresponsibility.

Because everyone believes in personal responsibility, it is meaningless for Republicans to proclaim their superiority because they do. No, they are not different from anyone else that way, but they claim it anyway.

You’d be hard pressed
to find anyone who promotes
an ethic of irresponsibility.

If Republicans are to claim some sort of superiority because of this claim, there must be someone to feel superior too. It is necessary for them to claim that there are people who are inferior, and behave irresponsibly. Hitler chose the Jews for that honor. Republicans have chosen poor African-Americans. This is why you now and again hear Republican politicians letting slip their belief that poor blacks are poor because they are lazy, or whose racism has snuck into the public light when they accidentally exposed the real reason for their anti-voter laws: to prevent black Democrats from voting.

Workers around the world were hit hard by the Great Recession that began in 2007. Companies closed, markets wobbled, and millions of people lost their jobs, and often their homes, their health insurance, and their savings. In the years since, many, many older workers have been forced to accept the realization that market forces are preventing them from working ever again, and all their money is gone.

Republicans have chosen
poor African-Americans to be
their irresponsible inferiors.

So what do the noble believers in Personal Responsibility say about these unfortunate souls? Many of them say they are simply lazy, that they could find work if only they would try. (My bet is that Republicans who lost their jobs and can’t find another one are less certain about that.) They are unmoved by the facts, that from the beginning there were far fewer jobs than applicants, that even people with advanced degrees were sending out hundreds of resumes and getting zero responses, that there were simply no jobs available, even in fast food joints. Since African-Americans are always harder hit by a weak labor market, this gave Personal Responsibility conservatives an excellent chance to reinforce their racism.

The other shiny chestnut, self-interested market behavior, doesn’t fare much better. Well, it’s true that Adam Smith’s village butcher sells meat in order to benefit himself, and everyone else gains the benefit of their purchases. But nobody behaves like a completely self-interested market automaton. If people did, nobody would have children. Many of the decisions we make are irrational as far as the market is concerned, but it was not our motive to obtain any market benefit in the first place.

Mature adults often act
in ways that contradict
their own market self-interest.

Mature adults often act in ways that contradict market self-interest, having children being the most obvious example. But they often act for the sake of the people they love and the neighbors and the city and country they care about. Neither personal responsibility nor market self-interest motivates people to volunteer for park cleanup, to tutor young people, or any of dozens of other things people often do. It’s fairly common for people to give up a good job and move cross-country to care for an aged and ill parent. The self-interested Personal Responsibility believer withdraws into his gated community, and sees only his nuclear family and others who agree with his narrow beliefs.

So while it’s true that self-interested market behavior and the embrace of personal responsibility do in fact motivate people, there are often more important motives, and the belief in either or both of them as sole motivating factors provides a decidedly false picture.

We have a good word
for a person who behaves
for his own self-interest:

A thin line separates self-interest from personal responsibility. We have a good word to describe a person who behaves completely for his own self-interest: selfish. A similar judgement can be made of the Personal Responsibility folk, because they are the centers of their own world, and do things primarily for themselves and their immediate family, and give little importance to things like civic duties, compassion, and charity.

Congressional Republicans are adamant in believing that government assistance to help people who don’t have enough food should be curtailed. These people, after all, are not responsible, which we can tell because they refuse to work. It doesn’t seem to matter to them that the largest group of the inadequately fed are children.


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One CommentLeave a comment

  1. A thought from The Pacific Bull Moose on this:

    “When you refuse to serve the greater good by sacrificing some benefit to yourself, you take the first step down the pathway to becoming a reactionary. When you try to expunge self-interest in the name of enlightenment, you take the fist step down the pathway to becoming a radical.

    The correct path is the middle route, the self-interest moderated by a developed sense of duty to the public good.”


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