Personal Responsibility

I noticed a letter to the editor this morning that sounded a familiar theme. The writer dismissed the Occupy Wall Street demonstrators, characterizing them as whiners wanting handouts, and ended by lecturing them to take “personal responsibility.” Clearly, in his view, “personal responsibility” means taking care of oneself and not expecting anyone else to lend a hand.

There’s a lot wrong with this diatribe–ironically, the major complaint of the OWS protests is the distortion of our social structures that makes it difficult, if not impossible, for many people to exercise that sort of personal responsibility–but for some reason, I was struck by the fact that we rarely hear anyone explain what they believe is involved in taking personal responsibility.

At a minimum, personal responsibility is understood as taking care of oneself. (In this sense, it always reminds me of the 15th Century English poor law that prohibited giving alms to the “sturdy beggar.”) In America, the able-bodied are expected to work. But doesn’t personal responsibility also include a responsibility to work for a system where work is available?

In other words, doesn’t personal responsibility entail responsibility for our communities? And if it doesn’t, how are we different from the “state of nature” described by Hobbes as “nasty, brutish and short.” This nation’s founders were heavily influenced by John Locke’s theory of the social contract; surely that contract demands a measure of social┬áresponsibility of our citizens.

This morning’s letter-writer uses “personal responsibility” much as the English used to use the phrase “I’m all right, Jack.” In other words, I’ve got mine and I expect you to get yours, and if you can’t, tough. Don’t whine to me.

I think that is a crabbed, unsatisfactory and ultimately self-defeating definition of personal responsibility. I believe the correct interpretation of responsibility is that I have a duty not just to take care of myself and my family, but to contribute to my community: to work for good government, to assist those who are less fortunate, and to work with others to create a society where all people have an equal opportunity to be personally responsible.

When we participate in the ideological babble that substitutes for civic discourse these days, we really need to define our terms.


  1. Another critical part of the OWS protests relates to a systemic inability – or unwillingness – to hold accountable those individuals and corporations (corporations have personhood) for their responsibility in trashing 20% of our national wealth. If the editorial writer wants to point the “take responsibility for yoruself” finger, perhaps he should start with wagging it at AIG, Chase, and Bank of America.

  2. And how many of these people requiring personal responsibility have hidden behind a corporation to avoid just that? Corporations were invented specifically to do away with personal responsibility. You can start a business, act irresponsibly or even tortious, yet put none of your personal wealth at risk. Sure the corporation or business might lose its assets, but there is no “PERSONAL” responsibility. If a corporation is a person, that’s person’s who existence is devoted to avoiding personal responsibility. That’s what OWS is protesting in my opinion. There the ones actually asking that people be responsible for the mess that they caused.

  3. From the same people who make the personal responsibility argument the rebuttal to your remarks is generally that these are just excuses for people who are lazy and don’t want to try hard enough. I couldn’t disagree more.

    I’m reminded of then Senator, now President Obama’s remarks at the convention in 2004 when he said:

    “And fellow Americans, Democrats, Republicans, independents, I say to you, tonight, we have more work to do more work to do, for the workers I met in Galesburg, Illinois, who are losing their union jobs at the Maytag plant that’s moving to Mexico, and now they’re having to compete with their own children for jobs that pay 7 bucks an hour; more to do for the father I met who was losing his job and chocking back the tears wondering how he would pay $4,500 a months for the drugs his son needs without the health benefits that he counted on; more to do for the young woman in East St. Louis, and thousands more like her who have the grades, have the drive, have the will, but doesn’t have the money to go to college.

    Now, don’t get me wrong, the people I meet in small towns and big cities and diners and office parks, they don’t expect government to solves all of their problems. They know they have to work hard to get a head. And they want to.”

    The other side doesn’t want to think that hardworking Americans who aren’t lazy and don’t want government to take care of them but are shut out due to things outside of their control even exist. That doesn’t compute with their ideology and thus is simply dismissed as an excuse.

    However, most conservatives that I talk to when you highlight specific examples will agree that something should be done to help so-and-so, the problem is bringing the discussion out of the abstract. Personal responsibility is a must, but so is social mobility. We need both or else we lose the driving force behind personal responsibility, what’s the point if it won’t get you anywhere.

    That’s how I have been able to transition into a more meaningful dialogue. Just a thought.

  4. Personal responsibility including responsibility to your community: Yes. Emphatically, Yes.

    Personal responsibility to “work for a system where work is available”: Hmmm….

    I’ll concede we have a personal responsbility to contribute to our community, and a limited governmental role- as possible. “Common defense”- I’m with you. Full-tilt health care for everybody- I’m not. However, I’m also not a law professor, nor on the Supreme Court.

    More importantly, in a mathematical and fiscal reality that doesn’t care about Hobbes, Locke, Mill, Rousseau, Marx et al,- these societal contracts and responsibilities we aspire to still have to be paid for- sooner or later, one way or another. It could be argued much of the expansion of governmental benefits has been due to tax revenues from jobs created by a powerful and robust private sector, versus jobs “created” by government (courtesy of that same taxation).

    I support the ‘Occupy’ philosophy (if they have common philosophies) of demanding accountability from corporations, banking, and Wall Street. I doubt you’ll find many Tea Partiers in disagreement (although many would suggest let’s start in D.C.). However, 65% of 200 Occupiers in New York polled by Clinton pollster, Doug Schoen, say it’s a govermental moral responsibility to provide health care, college education, and a secure retirement.

    New York doesn’t represent all of America, but perhaps they’re right. Europe has experience with expanded government. Should we ask their advice on how to pay for this “responsibility”?

  5. Your blog reminds me of the song “No Man is an Island”. How true. We all need and depend on others throughout our lives and should be as willing to give as to receive. I’d much rather live in a society where we all feel responsibility for each other’s well being than a society where everyone is only out for themselves. The latter sounds like hell (and Wall Street) to me.

    It’s time for a recommitment to a win-win society where everyone can benefit.

    Professional surveys indicate the majority of OWS demonstrators ARE employed. More would like to be if there were only jobs for them.

    Demands on government would be less if average folks felt the deck were not stacked against them on jobs, health care, retirement security, environmental and food toxins, and more. Corporations can profit for awhile via shortcuts of greed which poison the economic future of their customers, but poisoning the economic well ultimately poisons all.

  6. I agree that definitions are important. What “system” is broken? Our government? or Capitalism? Please define what “system” isn’t providing jobs. Is it the responsibility of the government to provide jobs? If Wall Street is corrupt, then our government is equally corrupt. I think this is why so many Americans have a problem with where the OWS protestors are protesting. Last time I checked, the federal government has all sorts of regulations and investigative agencies that are being “let off the hook” by the OWS protestors. Liberals can’t have it both ways: Bad Wall Street, but Good Government…the two are intertwined. I say “un-twine” the two. Capitalism salted with a moral foundation is the best “system” period.

Comments are closed.