A question that we all answer when we vote and think about politics is a question about the role of individual responsibility in our lives, communities, and country. How much individual responsibility should we accept in achieving financial success, in taking care of our elderly, and in providing aid to those who need it the most? How much of our current situation is a result of our individual responsibilities and decisions?
We never truly ask these questions out loud, and when we do discuss them, we don’t pull out a piece of paper or a calculator to weigh all the possible decisions and factors that have combined to shape our life. Surely our actions, attitudes, and decisions play a big role in determining our own success, but how much assistance did we receive from family? Did we have a natural disaster destroy our home? Were we the victim of random violence, and did we have a healthy support system around us as we recovered from that violence? There is certainly a role for individual responsibility in our lives, but there are so many variables between along our path to success that measuring the role of personal responsibility is complex and ever shifting, especially since there are different measures of success like financial success, health, and happiness.
In his book United, Senator Cory Booker looks at the question of personal responsibility and asks the difficult questions that I laid out above. As someone who played college football and graduated from Stanford and Yale, Booker certainly understands the importance of personal responsibility, but at the same time he is acutely aware of the support and assistance he received from family members and people in his community along the way. In regards to how we answer the question about personal responsibility as a community he writes,
“Our rightful, long-cherished veneration of individual freedom and self-reliance and our faith in the free market must not be accepted as excuses to fail in our individual responsibilities to preserve our communal treasures. These American ideals, despite a history that too often exhibits evidence to the contrary, can and must coexist. The idea that each of us has an absolute right to get all we can get has led to the devastation of our commons. It has violated the Justinian ideal as well as the American dream; it has diminished us all and impoverished our children.”
The first two lines from Booker’s quote really strike me. We often hold our own success as our own personal triumph and acceptance of responsibility, and from that vantage point it is easy to say that those who have not found the same level of success have simply failed to accept responsibility in their own lives. When we are succeeding it is easy to favor the free market and act as though government assistance or community involvement is not a necessary ingredient in growth and success. However, as soon as we perceive that someone is cheating us, that the system is somehow not working properly, we demand government intervention and we question why those with more are not doing their part to help those with less. When we look at our reactions to government through this lens we see that there is no inherent ideology favoring more or less government action, there are just differences in where we sit in terms of success, and what we perceive in terms of fairness or whether we are being cheated.
Booker’s quote continues to talk about personal responsibility in terms of how we help or hurt the environment and community in which we live. If our personal responsibility is to simply amass as much as we can and become as financially well off as possible, then those around us and our community will suffer as we put our own needs above others. If however, we decide that a major part of our personal responsibility is to use our advantages, our wealth, and our success to aid those around us, then we can do and be more for ourselves and for our community. Seeing the health of our cities, counties, and country as a reflection of our actions is important, but we often only see the health of ourselves and our families as our responsibility. It is important to see not just personal success and failure as our responsibility, but communal success and failure as our responsibility. In the world today we close ourselves from our community by escaping reality with television and suburban life, and we justify our decision to do so by adopting a narrow view of personal responsibility where our responsibility is primarily on ensuring our own financial success, and not ensuring the health of our community.