Personal responsibility or something like it has been a mainstay in recent American politics, back to a speech by Nathaniel Gorham of Massachusetts,1 delivered at the Constitutional Convention on July 18, 1787 (although his reference was to the behavior of “public bodies” rather than individual action or obligation).
More recently it has been associated with the limitation of governmental social programs, as in the Personal Responsibility and Welfare Reform Act of 1996.
It has been used most often by conservatives but with some frequency across the political spectrum. Essayist Alan Wolfe wrote in 1998, “To liberals and leftists, the message would be equally blunt. In particular, your insistent, almost pathological, fear of understanding the importance of personal responsibility astonishes us.”
The concept is often enough taken up on the left too, however. In his inaugural address, for example, Barack Obama spoke of “a new era of responsibility,” especially directing his point to younger people.
The concept as such is broadly popular. In 2014, for example, a Pew Research study showed that “being responsible” was considered the single most popular value in the rearing of children, over many options, across the whole of the ideological spectrum.
But what does “personal responsibility” actually mean?
Wikiquote’s definition is that “Personal responsibility or Individual Responsibility is the idea that human beings choose, instigate, or otherwise cause their own actions. A corollary idea is that because we cause our actions, we can be held morally accountable or legally liable.”
Ron Haskins expands on that, bringing the definition into the realm many conservatives ordinarily would use, with this: “Personal responsibility is the willingness to both accept the importance of standards that society establishes for individual behavior and to make strenuous personal efforts to live by those standards. But personal responsibility also means that when individuals fail to meet expected standards, they do not look around for some factor outside themselves to blame. The demise of personal responsibility occurs when individuals blame their family, their peers, their economic circumstances, or their society for their own failure to meet standards.”
This definition matches with a great deal of public policy, especially with arguments that people who receive public help may not be doing enough to help themselves, and become too reliant on assistance from others.
In the endless variety of human beings, some – there’s no way to get a clear number – fall short of exactly that test, failing to take personal responsibility for what they can control.
We all have different levels of ability to control what happens around us, of course. For economic, health, educational or other reasons, different people are able to handle different levels of demand and stress. To require personal action to take care of every problem may be entirely justifiable in one case, but unrealistic – and heartless – in another.
Drawing the line between the two is never easy. But that’s part of the implicit responsibility in treating people with decency and respect.
There is another aspect to calls for “personal responsibility” and declining to seek help from others: It can be turned into an argument against organizing to accomplish a task that might be beyond the capability of a single person acting alone.
Imagine a city whose leaders are proposing an expensive, tax-heavy project opposed by many residents. Calling on those residents to act on their “personal responsibility” – and offer individualized opposition – instead of organizing, would be a simple prescription for the city leaders to prevail easily over a deeply and hopelessly divided opposition. An organized, coordinated opposition (which appears to cut against the grain of “personal responsibility”) might instead prevail. Obviously the same concept applies in many places, including union organizing (bearing in mind that many political critics of unions have eased “personal responsibility” into their rhetoric).
When does this translate to: Don’t you dare organize against your (wealthy) betters?
The journey may not be lengthy.
But what does “being responsible” mean?
Depends, on who’s responsible for what.