The Politics of Personal Responsibility
By Steve Gillman - July, 2013
I want to suggest a set of rules that we can use when deciding
who to vote for and what laws to support. We might call them
strong guidelines, because I do not believe in absolute rules,
but these ones make sense to me in most contexts. They start
with the simple proposition that we should not support laws which
require actions which we would feel were unethical if we did
them ourselves. In other words, if it is wrong for me to do something,
it is wrong for me to hire others to do it (which is what we
are doing when we vote for our representatives).
I call this my politics of personal responsibility. Ordinarily
when people use that phrase, or similar ones, they are talking
about laws that require people to be more responsible for their
own lives. There is something to be said for that idea, but this
essay is about the question of how responsible we are (or can
be) for the effects of legislation that we support directly or
indirectly, and what that suggests about how we should vote or
what policies we should support. After all, if we knowingly vote
for men and women who are going to do bad things, we are essentially
taking part in what they do.
A politics of personal responsibility demands that we understand
the consequences of laws or government actions that we support.
We should also consider political candidates we support as our
agents, meaning were somewhat responsible for the choices
they make since we hire or elect them. To explain this further,
I have to relate the true story that inspired me to write this.
The Associated Press, on September 29, 2009, reported on the
case of a woman in Michigan who watched her neighbors' children
for them. They had to go to work, so several left their kids
with Lisa Snyder for about an hour each morning until the school
bus picked them up. A few days into the school year, though,
Snyder received a letter from the Michigan Department of Human
Services. She was informed that if she continued, she'd be violating
the law, since she did not have a license to operate a day care
center. In other words, she could go to jail for helping her
Virtually everyone agreed that this was unfair, including
the Governor, who called for a change in the law. However, changing
the law might not resolve the more fundamental problem with using
lawful force to regulate the behavior of supposedly free individuals.
The current law limits caring for non-related children to four
weeks annually without a license. Change it to allow an hour
each morning and there will inevitably be a case where someone
is watching their neighbors' kids for two hours. Should that
person then be thrown in jail?
Lets just get back to the core idea of licensing day
care. Suppose a person watches children for money and does them
no harm, but has no license. We will also assume that the service
is appreciated by the parents using it, who know the operator
is unlicensed, but trust him or her nonetheless. This is not
an unrealistic scenario in the least, given that it was the norm
before there was licensing. Now, should that person be sent to
In a moment Ill tell you what Ive decided about
these issues of law and politics. But first I have to point out
a simple but often overlooked fact that law proceeds from the
point of a gun. It may not appear that way if you follow all
the rules, but if you break them, enforcement is not done by
a polite request that you put yourself in jail if you feel like
it. The threat of force is always there and the guns are there
to back it up. They have to be or laws would be meaningless.
There are certainly laws I wouldnt obey if it not for the
guns and/or threat of their use.
Since law requires force or at least the threat of it, it
seems that we should be very careful about the laws we make,
right? Since it is not inconsequential to take away a person's
freedom and lock him or her in cold cage for years, we should
be careful about the laws we make, right?
Now, when I read that news story I had to ask myself a question,
one which became the basis for my politics of personal responsibility.
If I knew of a neighbor who was watching kids without a day care
license, and no one else was available to enforce the law, would
it be right for me to go and use force to drag her off and lock
her up? My answer is no. I wouldnt do it, and I couldnt
justify it in any way even if I was a police officer.
It would be wrong. Unless this person was hurting the kids or
somehow defrauding their parents, I could not see locking her
up for an honest business arrangement between her and other adults.
Now, if I am not willing to do from an ethical standpoint,
how could it be right for me to support a law that results in
others doing that exact same thing? It isnt right. Where
is the moral justification for hiring others to do what is morally
wrong for me to do. There is no special exemption from ethics
by way of majority vote as a way to make law. That gets me to
my own new rule:
If it is morally wrong for me to do something, it is morally
wrong for me to vote for a law that seeks to do the same thing
or to support such laws.
It is too easy to accept the given, but think back for a moment
to before day care was licensed. Suppose that a woman was watching
children for a fee. The parents are happy with the arrangement
and she does no harm to the children -- and if she does there
are already laws which cover such crimes.
Now, I come along and say she has to have my permission to
do this just because I think its a good idea for her and
others doing this to have some training or monitoring (or whatever
my excuse for power is). She disagrees and doesn't obtain my
permission slip or license, so I go into her home with a gun
to her head and put her in a jail cell as punishment.
I just can't see how I could be right in doing that. Force
a human being to live in a cage because she doesn't have my permission
to watch kids for parents who want her service? And if I cant
find any right to assume this power over her, I dont see
any way it becomes right if I get together with others to hire
others (our government) to do it.
It is a simple rule, and it is easy to see in our hearts that
what we have no right to do does not become right by a vote.
But we are above all else a hypocritical people when it comes
to issues of law and control. For example, most of us have broken
some law that covers a "victimless crime" (what a twisted
concept that is) or have friends who have, yet we have no intention
of turning in our friends or ourselves. Yet we are perfectly
content to see the "bad" law breakers -- you know,
the ones that are not like us -- locked up for their supposed
Now, some will see this as the ranting of an anti-regulation
conservative, but let add a thought or two to dispel that idea.
First, I do believe that there is a need for regulations. I also
happen to believe that there are often better ways to establish
them, so that they are fair and do not require criminal punishments
for violations. One way this might be done is by making minimal
regulations that are voluntary, but withdrawing access to the
civil courts for those who opt out. This would leave them unable
to sue for money owed to the business, for example. The incentive
of having access to the courts might get most to go along, and
otherwise service providers would have less protection and would
have to make it clear to customers that they are unlicensed so
they are not fraudulently presenting themselves. There are many
other ways to have a more civil society and still have regulations
that we desire.
What about laws regarding welfare and establishing social
programs? These get more complex, but the same rule works. I
happen to feel it is right for the poor to take from those who
have more if that's what their survival demands, and I would
do the same. On that basis, the most basic welfare programs are
fine with me. I would like to make tax evasion a civil matter,
making non-payment subject to fines and other less-violent penalties.
I would also like to make taxation a voluntary arrangement in
some way, which is not possible now, but not beyond possible
in the future (perhaps we would agree voluntarily to pay in order
to subscribe to necessary services rather than out of our fear
of prison). Either of these changes would take away some of the
ethical dilemmas regarding how the money is spent, since we could
choose to stop contributing without being violently attacked.
What military legislation and wars? I am against most wars
and military actions. We try to do too much with violence instead
of other means, even if war is necessary at times. And since
I could never imprison a man for refusing to go somewhere to
fight and die for me, I have to be against the draft. I would
never personally use drones to murder political opponents or
even suspected criminals (yes, I know we use different labels
than these to make it sound better), so I cannot support laws
that allow this.
The difficult part is not in understanding my ethical rule,
but applying it in the voting booth. If you already have well-developed
sense or system of ethics you can quickly determine which laws
are right or wrong for you. But in reality every person you will
ever have an opportunity to vote for is likely to support both
laws you think are ethical and those you think are not. So you
have to either stop voting altogether or seek to find candidates
who are on balance likely to do more good than harm. In any case,
if you accept the basic premise that if some action is wrong
for you it is also wrong to hire others to do it for you, you
have a basis for analyzing the policies and laws that your representatives
advocate and implement.
It is time for a politics of personal responsibility.