The phrase personal responsibility is frequently heard in the realm of politics these days. It has been used by conservatives for some time and has been more recently adopted by libertarians - at least among those libertarians who are actually traditionalists or conservatives (people who want to very slowly return to a time that never existed). Like the phrase social justice, personal responsibility means many things to many people and, as such, has become essentially meaningless.
If you enter the phrase "personal responsibility" into Google, the results show 1.4 million matches. For many conservatives, the phrase induces a trance-like state of patriotism and feelings of moral superiority. Democrats generally believe that personal responsibility only applies to Republicans and Republicans generally believe that personal responsibility only applies to Democrats.
To a traditionalist, the hackneyed phrase evokes the image of a clean-cut suburbanite that mows his lawn and keeps his Buick waxed. Libertarians adopted the mantra of personal responsibility as a strategic device. Laboring under the perception that calling for personal freedom might appear to be a radical concept to mainstream voters, libertarians use the phrase to moderate their calls for personal freedom.
The problem with advancing personal responsibility as some kind of political principle is that it is a personal issue. Bureaucrats never take personal responsibility for anything - they are just doing their jobs. Politicians don't take personal responsibility for anything unless they are taking political heat. When they do claim to be taking responsibility for something, it is to avoid the consequences of their actions.
Do conservatives and libertarians propose to legislate personal responsibility? Are they saying that Americans can't be trusted with freedom until they can demonstrate personal responsibility, and if so, who will decide how to measure it? Because there are consequences, positive or negative, for the actions of people, personal responsibility exists. It really doesn't matter whether someone accepts personal responsibility - they are forced to accept the consequences of their behavior whether they like it or not.
Those who advocate personal freedom should remove the personal responsibility phrase from their lexicon and replace it with self-determination and/or independence. These words connote freedom and imply that people take responsibility for themselves. This would eliminate confusion over what is being advocated.
The freedom to be irresponsible is what teaches us to be responsible. The dependence on government to avoid the consequences of irresponsibility is a burden on society and can be argued as such. In the absence of government (or family) to bear the negative consequences of an individual's actions, that individual is forced to accept the consequences. So, who cares if someone believes in personal responsibility?
Conservatives and many libertarians who babble about personal responsibility aren't selling the idea of freedom. For them, this phrase is synonymous with another favorite phrase of the political elite: work hard and play by the rules. By this, they mean pay a lot of taxes and obey all of our laws. There is also the suggestion by this crowd that personal responsibility means to adhere to traditional values, whatever those values may be.
To advocate for freedom, independence, and self-determination is to advocate for the freedom to be irresponsible. Personal responsibility is not a necessary element of freedom. The idea that one should be free to live in any manner they wish (as long as it does not intefere with the rights of others to do the same) is not contingent upon the personal responsibility of the individual.
Let religious leaders and the self-help industry advance the cause of personal responsibility and keep it out of the realm of politics and government. There is no doubt that personal relationships and society in general would benefit if more people took responsibility for their actions and gracefully accepted the consequences of their behavior. But, the same could be said about politeness or intelligence.
Americans may as well forget notions about freedom, independence and self-determination once they start looking to politicians to remedy what might best be called the human condition. Giving the government the power to make people more responsible would be a huge mistake. Giving government the power to limit freedom until people are more responsible would ensure that nobody will ever experience freedom.
This article contributed by Tom Blanton of Richmond, Virginia.