This article was published on libertasutah.org, on August 2, 2012, and an audio recording is viable here.
Both sides of the political aisle claim a near monopoly on accountability and responsibility while demonizing the “other side” for its irresponsible behavior. These ideals, however, have changed meaning throughout the years. Whereas individual accountability and personal responsibility meant taking care of one’s own business, and accepting the consequences and effects of one’s own actions, these concepts now come in the form of more legislation, stricter regulations, and more government involvement in the lives of the individual. True responsibility and accountability enhance individual liberty, yet in our current society, social and political accountability and responsibility are unnecessarily (and improperly) enforced at the expense of individual liberty.
Today’s social concept of personal responsibility comes in the form of mandates, regulations, and legislation. As general examples, individual accountability is established in the form of state-enforced individual mandates and substance prohibitions, as communal accountability is promoted in the form of collective imperatives and general mandates. Regardless of how the political left and right spin the issues, at the end of the day, society has largely accepted false solutions that violate individual liberty, freedom of conscience, and personal choice—a violation done in the name of accountability and responsibility.
With individual rights come personal responsibility and individual accountability for our own actions. In other words, personal responsibility and individual accountability require heightened self-government. To be free—truly free—means that we must act accordingly.
Yet, in the name of “personal responsibility and individual accountability,” collectivist agendas and apathetic citizens—on the political right and left—have radically altered the true meaning of personal responsibility. Today, personal responsibility is no longer viewed as taking responsibility for one’s own actions, but as a moral imperative to regulate, mandate, and legislate the actions of one’s neighbor. “All men must be personally responsible and individually accountable,” argues the collectivist, “therefore, I will mandate that he is both responsible and accountable.”
Mayor Bloomberg and Soda
Take for instance the recent uproar in New York City, where Mayor Bloomberg helped push forward a ban on soda drinks, tea, or other beverages with serving sizes larger than 16 oz. The ban, Mayor Bloomberg argues, is the government’s solution to assist the individual in becoming more responsible over the fight against obesity. Said Mayor Bloomberg,
We recognize that the obesity epidemic is one of the most urgent challenges facing our city, and we just refuse to stand on the sidelines while millions of our fellow New Yorkers struggle with the health implications of being overweight or obese.
This argument supposes that it is government’s prerogative to enforce responsibility—an idea which runs counter to the American Enlightenment’s concept that government’s duty is to merely act as an arbiter between free and independent men. Said Samuel Adams, in his famous treatise, The Rights of the Colonists,
In the state of nature every man is, under God, judge and sole judge of his own rights and of the injuries done him. By entering into society he agrees to an arbiter or indifferent judge between him and his neighbors; but he no more renounces his original right than by taking a cause out of the ordinary course of law, and leaving the decision to referees or indifferent arbitrators.
Here we see that Mayor Bloomberg adopts a collectivist position that runs counter to the ideology of true personal responsibility.
Who can argue that seatbelts do not save lives? While there are rare cases where seat belts cause severe damage (where severe damage would not otherwise occur), statistics overwhelmingly show that wearing a seatbelt dramatically increases the survival and safety of a driver and passengers in the unfortunate instance where an accident occurs.
Because of the safety concerns involved, government has, once again, asserted unjust cause into an individual’s life in the name of “personal responsibility.” Under the guise of abolishing all irresponsibility by edict, legislators (through implicit/explicit approval of the public) have adopted anti-American concepts of enforced personal accountability—a condition most repugnant to the ideal of individual liberty.
There are numerous collectivist arguments that seek to support the statist seatbelt mandate, but the foundation of these arguments comes down to the false notion that individual responsibility is something that can be forced, regulated, and mandated, prior to the individual demonstrating his incapability of true self-government, by the masses upon the individual. While popularly accepted, this arrangement is both illegitimate and ineffective, for mandating responsibility does not make a person internally and personally responsible.
Mandatory Auto Insurance
It should go without saying that a responsible and accountable automobile driver would have insurance coverage in the case of an accident. Automobile accidents involve costly repairs or replacement and medical costs that the overwhelming majority of Americans cannot cover out-of-pocket. Yet, even then, millions of Americans step into their cars every day uninsured and assume calculated risk for themselves and others around them.
Government, once again, has asserted unjust cause into an individual’s life in the name of “personal responsibility and individual accountability.” The individual in our society no longer sees personal responsibility as something to be done merely for oneself (e.g. going out and insuring one’s own automobile in case of accident), but we now see personal responsibility as us compelling our neighbor to carry insurance in case he damages our vehicle.
Social Welfare and Mandates
Whether a religious ideal or an inherent part of our humanity, mankind has a moral imperative to provide for the poor, downtrodden, and destitute. Given this standard, the subsequent arguments revolve around the methods of complying with this moral imperative. To the collectivist, the most acceptable methods of establishing personal responsibility and individual accountability come in the form of individual mandates, socialized services, and institutions subsidized by the government.
The ‘liberal’ collectivist holds that one individual has personal responsibility for another. The individual is and should be, therefore, forced by law to provide for his neighbor through various taxes. In other words, the ‘liberal’ collectivist believes that X can rightfully regulate and legislate that a portion of Y’s rightfully owned property can be taken away and reallocated to Z for Z’s benefit.
The ‘conservative’ collectivist believes that he can also force his neighbor into personal responsibility, albeit in a different way than the first. In response to the ‘liberal’ collectivist, the ‘conservative’ collectivist does not believe that you force one man to provide for another, but that one man can force his neighbor to be responsible for himself. In other words, the ‘conservative’ collectivist believes that X can rightfully regulate and legislate Z to provide for Z’s self. The ‘conservative’ collectivist here argues that his is the more rightfully accountable and personally responsible approach because he does not require Y to provide for Z.
What this ‘conservative’ collectivist fails to realize, however, is that he has merely shifted his focus of forced personal responsibility to Z and has adopted the same basic premise as the ‘liberal’ collectivist, namely, that personal responsibility is not taking responsibility for the consequences of one’s own actions, but personal responsibility is making sure that others are responsible.
Regardless of the method, the premise is the same: one man has the right to make his neighbor accountably responsible to his own standards. In other words, in both scenarios, the collectivist X believes that he has rightful claim to legislate and force Y and Z into X’s view of responsibility. Again, in these two scenarios, no one is actually taking personal accountability and responsibility for himself; instead, these collectivist solutions redefine personal responsibility and individual accountability as one’s ability to regulate one’s neighbor—not oneself.
True Personal Accountability and the Real Problem
Freedom and liberty are ideals and realities that transcend political systems. Our own Declaration of Independence argues that “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness” are “unalienable rights” derived from our mere being and existence. These rights are not gifts of man through government institutions, entities, mandates, or regulations. They are endowed upon us by our Creator.
As a society, we no longer understand and practice personal responsibility and accountability. The correct idea of personal responsibility (where an individual takes the sole risk, incentive, accountability, and responsibility for his own actions), has now morphed into a collectivist argument where an individual somehow fulfills his personal “responsibility” and “accountability” through unjustly mandating, legislating, and regulating the self-government of another.
Personal responsibility and accountability are matters of regulating and governing the self (i.e. of having self-government), not matters of regulating and governing others. Government’s true and just imperative is to arbitrate in matters where one individual chooses to act beyond the principles of self-government to actively and intentionally violate the rights of another individual.
Society at large has accepted, built, and currently maintains a collectivist system that posits that personal responsibility constitutes the coerced collective care for another individual’s needs. When this form of liberal collectivism is rejected, ‘conservative’ society has yet to stand united in the defense of actual self-government and individual liberty. In rejection to the first problem, conservative collectivists still falsely assert that one person can force his neighbor to be individually accountable and personally responsible. Both proposed solutions are still founded in coercion, and both solutions present a reality where individual takes a backseat to bad philosophy.
New York City’s ban on drinks over 16 oz, invasive seatbelt laws, mandatory auto insurance, and collectivist solutions for health care do not demonstrate personal accountability or responsibility. Each of these methods are collective controls on the individual that rob the individual of real personal responsibility and accountability.
The Solution: A Return to Real Personal Accountability and Responsibility
If X is really practicing accountability and responsibility, then X would limit his own soda consumption, buckle his own seat belt, insure himself, and save for future medical emergencies. If X is really taking personal responsibility for his actions and assumed risk, then X will take steps towards taking care of himself—regardless of what anyone else does.
Adopting this approach, if someone were to hurt X in the course of an accident, then X has already taken responsibility for himself and is prepared. True responsibility rests on inward accountability, not external controls on one’s neighbor. When X—through supporting, passing, or allowing mandates, regulations, and legislation—forces Y to buy auto insurance, just in case Y happens to accidentally run into X’s car, this does not demonstrate X’s personal responsibility. X’s personal responsibility rests solely within himself—he cannot rightfully or justly force it upon on Y or Z.
The liberal and conservative collectivist argues that government intrusion is necessary to fulfill the individual’s personal responsibility, but personal responsibility and individual liberty are robbed through either collectivist’s proposed solutions. Once coercion is introduced (i.e. once the collectivist concepts are adopted and enforced by penalty of law), the rightful concepts of self-government and personal responsibility are lost. True self-government and personal accountability occur when an individual freely takes responsibility for his own actions, not when someone imposes responsibility upon him.
If ever an individual utilizes his ability of choice and self-government incorrectly and violates the rights of another, then government’s rightful duty is to arbitrate the matter by restoring lost equity to the injured party. Once harm is demonstrated, then can limits and restrictions be placed upon a person who has individually proven incapable of self-government. Until a harm has been committed, however, there is no rightful or just recourse that an individual, society, or government has to enforce personal responsibility on an individual.
The real solution is to reject and then change the system built upon these two false and distorted collective rationalizations of personal accountability and responsibility. The real solution is to mind one’s own business, take care of one’s own personal affairs, and provide for one’s own needs.
Returning to true personal responsibility and accountability does not create social and economic isolationism, with each man becoming an island. In fact, the opposite occurs. Returning to true responsibility and accountability brings man back to the free ability to act on his own innate goodness—the ability that is robbed from him when he is coerced into fulfilling his moral duty of self-government. As for his fellow man, responsibility is lost when it is forced, for it is liberty and freedom that give life and meaning to personal responsibility. The manifestation of true self-government and personal responsibility live and die in perfect accord with the amount of liberty a society is willing to endure. Adherence to forced compliance does not constitute real self-government, nor is it a valid substitute for true personal responsibility and accountability.
We must stand with Thomas Jefferson when he boldly stated that “I would rather be exposed to the inconveniencies attending too much liberty than to those attending too small a degree of it.” These inconveniences come by way of true personal responsibility and individual accountability—not in the false collectivist approach of compelling and coercing our neighbor into our own view of what is and is not “responsible.”
Let us all, as Utahns and Americans, recognize the false collectivist arguments and perceptions that are so rampant in our society, and return to a true view of personal responsibility. Let us take personal responsibility for our own actions and leave our neighbors to be responsible for their own actions. In so doing we will re-learn the blessings associated with individual accountability and we will enhance our ability to govern ourselves. This is the only way that we can truly begin to realize the magnitude and blessing of that fundamental and unalienable gift of individual liberty.