Being Responsible

by Merrill Ring

The right’s idea that being responsible means rejecting government is misguided because it builds into the concept of responsibility for oneself extraneous notions, ideas that are ideological and not at all uplifting.

The notion of personal responsibility is central to the conservative rejection of the welfare state, of the idea that we as a people should provide help to those of us in need.  They regard that as making people wards of the state, of helping them avoid responsibility for their lives and their acts, of sapping their ability to make their own way in life.

That view goes so far that even people in need, influenced by such thoughts, think it wrong of them to accept government assistance (‘handouts’). 

But why not take it that a responsible person with, say, two hungry children would turn to the government and apply for food stamps?  Isn’t it irresponsible to not make use of something available that is sorely needed? 

The conservative view of being responsible has built into it a rejection of government assistance, the idea that a responsible person and those dependent upon her/him should suffer rather than making use of resources made available by the government.  Hence the conservative notion of being responsible is not a neutral notion.   They build into it a rejection of government, something not genuinely an element of what responsibility amounts to.

On the other hand, a neutral description of personal responsibility would not foreclose possibilities for someone to stand on their own two feet by accepting something offered to them and offered on the ground that they deserve it.  Standing on your own can well involve making an intelligent choice as to how to best help yourself – and that is what taking responsibility for yourself amounts to.

And what is government assistance?  This is a democracy and in the long run, government assistance is assistance by We the People, by citizens who think that it is right to help others in the community who are in need.

Of course, part of the rejection of government assistance by those who need it (who are too proud!) is not simply the notion of being responsible.  It is the idea that they are then putting themselves in the category of ‘Welfare Queens’ – and that means that they are not better off than blacks.  That racism is embedded in the message of what it is to be responsible offered by conservatives.

Or take birth control:  apparently the responsible woman/girl cannot accept insurance support for birth control because she then avoids being responsible for her own actions.  But that is nutty.  In opting for coverage for birth control, she is being responsible, regarding it as an important that no children be born before she wants them.  But, says the conservative, that is helping her be sexually active without facing the consequences.  And so we are back to the conservative condemnation of sex (especially for women)!

Once again, the conservative picture of responsibility is not a neutral description of what it is to be responsible but masks deeper ideas:  a rejection of community, of the idea that we are bound together, of racism, of human (female) sexuality.