Why I hate personal responsibility

As a character trait, it’s admirable. It can keep a kid in school or sober up an addict. But in the arena of political rhetoric, it’s touted as the solution to poverty, crime, low graduation rates, and even sexually transmitted diseases. And this is where things get ugly.

First of all, it’s very difficult to talk about personal responsibility without being smug. You won’t hear many people saying, “I’m a slacker, but if everyone took responsibility for their actions we’d have a better world.” It’s weak. The personal-responsibility argument practically forces the arguer into talking up his or her own most responsible moments. Like, “My parents were immigrants but I’m a lawyer, and if everyone just took some responsibility they’d be like me.” Or, less defensibly, “Hey, I walked up the stairs all by myself. Disabled people just need to take some responsibility.”

Second, personal responsibility is useless on a policy level. The odds of everyone in our country just shaping up and solving all of their problems are tiny. We can either try to do something about, say, low graduation rates, or we can accept them as they are. What we can’t do is expect a sudden mass infusion of character and then complain when it doesn’t happen.

Now, people’s opinions change over time, and as we grow older we do tend to get more conservative. I can imagine a day when I myself might be tempted to talk about personal responsibility. So I’ve developed a little something to say instead. Here goes:

Not all problems are soluble, and not all situations benefit from government intervention.

It’s a little bit of a conversation-stopper, I’ll admit. But at least it doesn’t call for impossible sweeping personality changes, or belittle people I don’t even know. I hope that, if the time comes, I’ll be responsible enough to use it.


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