The Politics of Personal Responsibility

By - 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 we’re 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 neighbors.

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?

Let’s 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 jail?

In a moment I’ll tell you what I’ve 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 wouldn’t 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 wouldn’t do it, and I couldn’t 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 isn’t 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 it’s 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 can’t find any right to assume this power over her, I don’t 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 "crimes."

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.

Other Pages


Taxing the Middle Class

Politics and Responsibility