Saturday, October 6, 2012

Personal Responsibility

Recently, Don Watkins, in a blog posting (I can’t find the specific post for some reason, but it was on, which is very good), referenced an article arguing that anyone who tries can succeed, at least to some level. This article was written recently and not one hundred years ago. Now, I don’t disagree with its basic sentiment. I especially agree that one should take responsibility for one’s welfare and future. Further, I emphatically agree that we live in a world where it is possible to make our own way, metaphysically speaking. But, as I read the article, I kept wanting to ask the author if he’d been paying any attention to what has been happening in our economy and culture now, and for the last one hundred years.

I know why Dr. Watkins referred to the article. It is rare to find anyone who is willing to say anything good about personal responsibility today. Any such sentiment needs to be encouraged. But, in fact the article is wrong in its application to today’s America. Personal responsibility is not encouraged. Personal success is often disparaged (not by business people, but certainly within the culture). Most important, the government has been actively attacking personal success and making it more difficult for a long time.

I think that it is difficult to succeed today and becoming more so. I think that the article should have had some important provisos. I mean, haven’t we been saying that it matters what the government does? Haven’t we been arguing that man needs to have certain conditions to succeed and that the U.S. government has been moving away from those conditions.

Now, in order to make sense of the issue of personal responsibility in our context certain basic notions have to be made plain. Most important, and thus first, is that if man’s life is the standard of value, the actions by individuals based upon their own understandings and judgment is the only way in which human survival is achieved and prosperity or progress, in any rational sense, occurs. It isn’t the action, or the amount of effort, or the “work” done that is the cause of success, but the use of reason and the resulting ideas, and their correspondence with the real world. Nor does good reasoning guarantee success. A rational man can fail, even in a rational or free environment.

But, we are not living within a rational environment. We are living within an advanced welfare state with millions of regulations, probably a million regulators, and an endless number of imposed government costs of doing business. In business after business, the risk of failing to meet some idiotic government regulation or expense has become greater and greater. Starting a business was always risky. Small businesses have always failed at very high rates.

And then there is the issue of what our personal responsibility is.

Some guy on facebook told me that people on Social Security were deadbeats, and we shouldn’t care what happens to them. But after nearly one hundred years of regulation of the financial sector, the chances that most Americans can save sufficiently for retiring, at nearly any age (not to mention the costs of health care after fifty plus years of government interference in the medical industry), is nearing zero (see my blog post). Many people, if not most, who are dependant upon government retirement money are victims.

Most importantly, the facebook guy had the cause and effect backwards. While it is true that there are some people who duck personal responsibility, at least in America that percentage is a minority. It is also true that some people are misled by the claim that their forced savings by the Social Security tax, for example, does lead to some level of personal protection at retirement. Neither type of group explains the large numbers of people who end up dependent upon Social Security.

What does explain those figures is the consequences of government actions in the economy. Just to point the finger at one element (out of a list of hundreds), look at the disconnection between savings and capital entailed in the policies of the Federal Reserve Board. The Fed thinks that the economy works best with an annual increase of price levels at two percent. This means that in just ten years, a dollar loses well over twenty percent of its purchasing power. At the same time, the Fed has driven interest rates down to very low levels. The interest rate offered by the standard savings account will not allow the saver to keep up with price inflation, especially after income taxes. To try to make ones savings work and grow, people have been forced to become investment professionals. However, the Fed’s policies have resulted in asset booms that have in fact left Americans with considerably less wealth.

The facebook guy is blaming the victim for the consequences of government actions.

Ayn Rand didn’t write about this issue directly. But she was asked about it. One response is on point. She was asked about unemployment insurance. The questioner clearly expected that Miss Rand would condemn the person taking the government money, but she didn’t. She said, “Government controls create unemployment. No matter what happens to your employer, if you are out of work today, why should you protect him and starve? There cannot be individual responsibility for something that is the government’s fault. In any situation where the government creates a hardship that pushes you into a position of martyrdom, you are morally justified to take advantage of whatever money is offered to you, provided you don’t spread the kind of ideas that created the trouble.” (Ayn Rand Answers, p. 124) (Note that Ayn Rand kept her wealth earned from her writing in savings accounts.)

Fundamentally, we are not individually responsible for the consequences of government actions. Nor can we hold other individuals responsible by demanding that they suffer when they are victims. In a society that is attacking the innocent, we are now in a lifeboat context, and the rules of morality apply differently. Condemning the victim, the innocent, is joining the government. It is corrupt. It is evading the cause. It makes finding the correct solution nearly impossible.

If we tell someone who can’t find a job because of government interference, say minimum wage laws or restrictions starting a new business, that he isn’t taking personal responsibility, we are doing the liberal’s job. We need to be telling him that he, too, is a victim. If he is to have a future he needs to live within capitalism.

If we then tell someone who wasn’t able to save for retirement and sees the cost of living and their medical expenses rising beyond reach that they didn’t take personal responsibility, we are doing the liberal’s job. We need to be telling him that he, too, is a victim. That if he is to be able to live, and even enjoy his old age, he needs to live within capitalism.

If we then tell someone who is poor and uneducated that they are failing to take personal responsibility, just because they are poor and uneducated, we are doing the liberal’s job. We need to be telling him that if he does not want to remain poor and if he wants an education of any kind, he needs to live within capitalism.

The only other option besides capitalism is a declining economy and ultimately depression and perhaps the collapse of civilization.

Let’s keep the cause and effect clear. Let’s not advocate policies that will further harm the victims. For example, declaring that we must first stop the entitlement programs before we have a functioning economy (meaning one that can create wealth) only means that we are telling people that they will have to suffer without hope. Yes, there will be some suffering in any event. But telling anyone that will have to suffer is only justified if we are moving toward capitalism, which means a free economy. So first we have to liberate the economy. Then we can cut the entitlements. But if we don’t begin with freeing the economy, we will only add suffering without the possibility of a prosperous future.

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