I posted the observation about liberals and conservatives on one forum and one respondent agreed on the personal responsibility point. He went on to say that's why he supported an individual health insurance mandate, because many people would otherwise not buy insurance and society would be stuck with the costs when they got sick. Superficially, it looks like he's in favor of individual responsibility, but in fact he's pushing the exact opposite. If he were really in favor of personal responsibility, he's argue that people ought to be able to decide or not decide to get insurance, but if they didn't, and got sick, society would not be stuck with the costs because society would not be responsible. The person would have to deal with the problem on their own, and that includes not asking their friends to organize a charity drive, or appearing in some maudlin human-interest piece on the news.
What we actually need is something nearly opposite to the Libertarians, so (drum roll) let me announce the formation of the Responsibilitarian Party. The emphasis of the Responsibilitarian Party is not on personal rights, entitlements, or liberties, but on personal responsibility. Government has legitimate authority to require people to live up to their personal responsibilities. It also has legitimate authority to require businesses to live up to their responsibilities. It has no authority to require others to pitch in if people fail to be responsible, nor to limit the freedoms of anyone because some people use those freedoms unwisely. Society has a moral obligation to help people who are victims of disasters not of their own making, and to warn people of danger. It has no moral obligation to mitigate the consequences of unwise actions or to restructure reality so that actions have no consequences.
The Problem with Rights
The concept of personal rights was a radical step forward back when the only alternative was the divine right of kings. The concept of personal rights meant that there were things the State could not, must not, do. In America, the concept of rights started from a loose formulation of "life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness" in the Declaration of Independence, which were really statements that people had the right to freedom from arbitrary arrest, punishment, and restraints on personal freedom. Those rights, by the way, were "endowed by their Creator," so they have presumably been nullified by separation of Church and State. Rights became more explicit in the Constitution. Some were guarantees of personal freedom, like freedom of speech, religion, the press, and peaceful assembly. Others were procedural safeguards promised by the government, such as trial by jury, freedom from arbitrary search and seizure, and the right to cross examine witnesses. None, it is important to note, were rights to specific life outcomes, or anything belonging to another. The Declaration of Independence espoused the right to the pursuit of happiness, but neither it nor the Constitution obligated anyone else to finance the chase, much less guarantee happiness. As has often been said, the First Amendment gives you freedom of the press; it doesn't give you a printing press.
The rights were very basic, indeed primal, and the details subject to restriction. Some rights, like trial by jury, were absolutely guaranteed. Others, like freedom of speech, the press, and religion, could not be infringed by Congress but could be regulated by the States. (The idea that freedom of speech applies within the States is a Twentieth Century interpretation; it was once considered perfectly Constitutional for states and cities to ban books or theatrical performances) And - one of the most interesting things about the Constitution - terms like "freedom of speech" and "establishment of religion" were never precisely defined. You don't have a right to mouth off in court or lie under oath because contempt of court and perjury are not considered free speech. Neither are revealing state secrets, passing information to the enemy in time of war, libel, slander, discriminatory advertising, false advertising and shouting "fire" in a crowded theater. "Establishment of Religion" has been interpreted broadly as any government support for or opposition to religion, an interpretation that many people reject.
Unfortunately, people have a way of assuming that privileges are rights, and rights are entitlements, that is, things to be provided at no personal cost by society. Thus, Internet access, something that did not even exist in 1980, has been declared to be a basic human right. Organ transplants, not even attempted in 1960, have now become entitlements in the eyes of many. After every airplane crash, relatives of the victims cry "We have a right to answers." Actually, nobody has a right to what cannot be done, and if the plane crashes at sea, it may not be possible to get answers. And the reason we piece together crashed planes is to benefit society by identifying possibly unknown hazards to aircraft. The reason there was a massive international effort to find out why Air France Flight 447 crashed in the Atlantic in 2009 was to benefit society, because airplane crashes in mid-flight are extremely rare, and if there's some hitherto unknown danger, we want to know about it. Providing closure to victims' families is a courtesy, not an entitlement.
In a world where people were encumbered by obligations and had no rights, rights were a breath of fresh air. But the concept of rights divorced from responsibility has become pernicious. We can see this in the sorry state of American political discourse. Conservatives believe they have a right to police and fire protection, roads, bridges and airports without paying taxes. Liberals believe people have the right to highly advanced medical procedures and complex drugs - absolutely safe, of course - without paying for them. And the tiniest asymmetry of rights soon degenerates into abuse. When defendants had the advantage in civil litigation, we saw gross negligence and callous disregard for people's safety because the offenders knew they could get away with it in court. Now that we've tipped the balance a bit toward plaintiffs, we see frivolous lawsuits and militant self-righteousness on the part of people who are completely at fault for their own misfortunes. When there were no penalties for being crude at work, women suffered gross indignities with no recourse; now that we have rules against sexual harassment, people have been sued for having photos of their spouse in a swimsuit on their desk.
You are responsible for your life outcomes. Think of responsibility this way: if the hero doesn't show up to rescue you, who will bear the consequences?
As far as the physical universe is concerned, you have no rights whatsoever. If you are struck by lightning or killed by a tornado, who are you going to sue? If a gamma ray burst knocks out all our electronics due to EMP, what will happen to your "right" to Internet access? If an asteroid impact creates a global winter that destroys all crops, what will your "right" to food mean? If our health care facilities are overloaded by a global pandemic, what will happen to your "right" to health care? The lesson is clear: there can be no such thing as a "right" to anything external to yourself. If circumstances can make something unavailable to you, it's not a "right." It's been said "You have a right to what you can carry off a sinking ship," or "You have a right to what you can carry out of a burning building." If the fire starts while you're in the shower.
You did virtually nothing to create the conveniences you enjoy. The retirement plan 300 years ago was: get up, go to work, come home, go to bed, repeat. Then one day, you didn't get up because you were dead. The combined wealth of all the nations in the world could not have bought a heart transplant, television, smoke alarm or a microwave oven in 1900. The total lifetime output of a medieval peasant could not have bought him one second of electric light or a crumb of chocolate. The real 1% in our society are the people who innovate. You do not have a right to any of this. For all you know, a super solar flare or gamma ray burst will happen before you get to the end of this page and knock us all back to the days of the steam engine. You have no right to an interesting, lucrative job. Most people who ever lived worked at drudge labor for enough calories to get through the day. It is your sheer good fortune that you were born into the present instead of as a Neolithic hunter-gatherer or a medieval peasant. (Most demographers estimate that about 100 billion people have ever lived. Only 7 billion are alive now, and only 10% of those are affluent. So if you can read this you're better off than 99% of the people who ever lived) This is a privilege, not a right. Your obligations to material society are:
- Gratitude for the availability of material prosperity and especially for any assistance you receive.
- Supporting innovation, particularly by getting and supporting education.
- Supporting the maintenance and improvement of our material wealth.
- Not obstructing innovation through ignorance or selfishness.
- Not damaging, abusing, vandalizing or wasting anything, or allowing things to decay through neglect. As the Navy likes to say: "Use it up, wear it out, make it do or do without."
- Knowing the risks and consequences of any action you take.
- Getting informed about the risks if you don't already know them.
- Being prepared to deal with the consequences of your actions.
- Not taking an action if you can't deal with the consequences.
- Using any advantages you have to improve society.
If you want the benefits of an advanced technological society, you consent to live next door to the mine that supplies the raw materials, the factory that fabricates them into goods, the power plant that supplies energy and the disposal site or recycling center that deals with the waste.
You have no right to an uninformed opinion. If you can't speak knowledgeably about the issues, stay home on Election Day. And stay off Internet comment sites.
Given that "reasonable" people pass down ever more unreasonable verdicts these days, the legal standard for evaluating actions and passing judgement should be changed from "reasonable" to well-informed person.
You have a responsibility not to impair your ability to contribute to society. No, we don't care if it's uncomfortable. Wear the f****** helmet. I don't care about the anecdotal story of how your aunt Maude was miraculously flung from a car into a pile of rose petals just before her car went off a cliff, burst into flames, and sank in quicksand. Wear the seat belt. You have an obligation not to make yourself useless by abuse of drugs or alcohol, or by failing to live a healthy lifestyle, or by remaining ignorant.
Sex is for adults. You have no right to engage in sex without knowing the consequences and being able to cope with them. Sex is not a right; if it were, people wouldn't be dateless on Saturday night. You absolutely do not have the right to create a child without being able to care for it. No, we don't care if you find condoms uncomfortable or vasectomies scary.
If you produce a child, you help support it. No ifs, ands, or buts. The child's needs come before yours, and definitely before your wants.
The only entitlements are to things you personally have created or earned. Programs like Social Security or Medicare, where people have paid into the funds, are entitlements. Veterans' benefits which have been promised as a reward for service, are entitlements. Interest on money loaned to the government is an entitlement. Assistance for other problems, the "safety net," is charity. Educational assistance is something we as a society do for our benefit; for the recipients it is charity. The proper response to all charity is gratitude.
Charity is for people who genuinely need it. You have an obligation not to steal from society by misusing charity, using it to excess, relying on it when you are capable of supporting yourself, or by impairing your ability to contribute to society.
Someone doing research on AIDS or climate change with a grant is expected to account for every penny. Society has a perfect right to expect recipients of charity, who do nothing in exchange, to do the same. Society has the right to demand that recipients of charity behave in a socially responsible manner: stay off illegal drugs, avoid alcohol abuse, avoid crime, practice responsible sex, cooperate with the police, and reject any peer pressure to the contrary.
If you mess up, the consequences are principally on you. If there are legitimate mitigating circumstances, people may help you out. That is charity, something we do as a benefit to society to protect us all from unforeseeable catastrophes. Your proper response in that case is gratitude.
If you indulge in a risky activity, you accept the consequences. If you pass a danger sign, you, and nobody else, are responsible for what happens. You will pay the hospital bills and the cost of rescue. In fact, there should be a simple process for declaring immunity to liability. Trespassing or bypassing any warning sign should create an absolute bar to liability. (Obviously places where there is a reasonable expectation of safety, especially all places that charge admission, places of employment, or public buildings should be liable)
Nature can be dangerous, so if you venture into a natural area like a park or a beach, you accept all risks whether they're posted or not. This means grizzly bears, falling rocks, cliffs, rip currents, heavy surf, exposure, poisonous plants and animals, pointy branches, brush fires, avalanches and floods. You have a responsibility to inform yourself about the risks and be able to recognize and avoid risky situations. You have a responsibility to carry a map and compass and know how to use them. A GPS is a nice addition but it is not the same. Oops, you dropped it and it got broken. Now what?
If you build in a place prone to natural hazards, be prepared to pay the costs. The Midwest has tornadoes and California has earthquakes. But buildings can be made safer for both hazards. You do not have to build on a slope prone to landslides. If you want to live where wildfires occur, make sure your house is absolutely fireproof (It can be done. No, we do not care if you like the appearance.) If you build in a flood plain or a coastal area subject to storm surges, buy flood insurance. If nobody will insure you, maybe you need to build somewhere else.
Society has neither the right nor the obligation to forbid something solely to protect people from negative consequences. But if you're warned that something can be dangerous, and you do it anyway, you bear the consequences. If you engage in a hazardous lifestyle, like alcohol or drug abuse, risky sex, extreme sports, or crime, you deal with the consequences.
Your obligations come before gratification. If you get a windfall, you service your debts first. (Nobody says a balanced approach is wrong. If you get a raise, you can pay down your debts and also go to Disney World.)
Bankruptcy is a charity we extend to people who are in over their heads. In the old days, prison or slavery was the remedy. If someone loans you money in good faith, you at least owe them a convincing explanation for why you can't pay it back.
It is not cruel to expect people to take ten or twenty years to pay off debts.
The fact that you borrowed money, and the thing you bought has decreased in value, and is worth less than you owe, is not a legitimate reason to ditch the debt. After all, a new car is worth less than you owe on it the second you drive it off the lot.
The most fundamental rule of personal responsibility is the social contract. Every person is in a social contract with every other person. The non-negotiable core of that contract is that, if the other person is not harming you, or posing a serious risk of harm, you are absolutely obligated not to harm that person. If you are a victim of injustice, you have no right to vent your anger on some innocent person. If you are poor, you have no right to take from someone who has done you no wrong.
On the other hand, if you are wealthy, you also have an absolute obligation not to hurt others through the use of your superior resources, especially if you've made people dependent on you. So if you close a plant, bankrupt a company or lay off workers, you are absolutely responsible for any harm you cause.
One aspect of the social contract is that society protects businesses solely for the benefit of society. A business exists solely to benefit society. Society allows businesses to earn profits so they can go on providing benefits to society. Society has no obligation to protect an enterprise that harms or contributes nothing to society. If you own a business, your obligations are to society as a whole, your customers, your employees, your creditors and investors, and your executives In that order.
If you expect people to provide for themselves, you have a responsibility to make it possible for them to do so. If you expect your employees to provide their own health insurance and retirement savings, you have a responsibility to pay them enough to make it possible.
Obey the law. Period. We can debate whether or not drug laws do any good, but while they're in force, obeying them is not optional. Ditto stop signs, red lights, and not downloading child porn. Also meeting emissions standards, paying taxes, and not committing discrimination or sexual harassment.
If your precious snowflakes run afoul of the law, your responsibility is to society. In school, your responsibility is to support the teacher.
If you choose to disobey the law, you consent to whatever consequences ensue. This may mean being shot while fleeing or resisting arrest, or being put away for a very long time. If you get hurt in the commission of a crime, or injured by your victim, you bear the burden. It should be absolutely forbidden for criminals to sue their victims.
Even the most petty crime carries a long tail. Count in the costs of police, judiciary, incarceration or supervision, and restitution to the victim, and it's entirely possible you could spend the rest of your life paying for a crime.
If you are seen with a gun, anyone else has the right to assume you have criminal intent and react accordingly.
But, many will object, "I can see all sorts of injustices that could flow from these principles." That's why we have laws, to deal with complexities and prevent abuses. This is not going to be a lawyer-free society. People will find ways to abuse their freedoms and we will need laws to stop them. But principally, you avoid the injustices by recognizing and avoiding situations where they might happen. You sharply reduce the risk of being being arrested by not committing the crime. You avoid having to pay exorbitant child support by not getting someone pregnant.
The most nearly infallible recipe for injustice is complexity. Case in point, the tax code. Also, after decades of "reforms" designed to make the judicial system more just, O.J. Simpson walked. All those changes made the system less just, not more. The recipe for a more just society is simple laws. The laws may lack subtleties that tweak some rare unfortunate miscarriage, but the simplicity of the law will make it far easier to avoid those situations to begin with. So yes, a homeowner may shoot an unarmed burglar unjustly, but you avoid that injustice by not committing burglary.
Why We'll Never See ItSimple: too many of us have a vested interest in avoiding responsibility. Not in the sense of covering one anothers' backs in case things go bad: aid for towns that get flattened by tornadoes, insurance for when someone runs a red light and T-bones your car, unemployment insurance for when the economy turns sour.
No, I'm talking flat-out denial of responsibility. The IRS could easily be tasked with collecting back child support and court judgments with a hefty surcharge as an incentive to pay up. The deadbeat lobby would make sure it never got out of committee. Doctors don't want malpractice statistics published, especially who's been sued most often. Judges, prosecutors and police don't want to be held responsible for misconduct. Habitual screw-ups don't want to be held responsible for their own dumb choices and lawyers don't want to be held responsible for representing them in court. Conservatives would be all for holding ordinary people responsible but would want executives and corporations shielded. Liberals would be fine with holding corporations liable but are in outright denial that ordinary people create any of their own misfortunes.