The Consequences of Personal Responsibility

The conservative movement is big on the rhetoric of individuality and personal responsibility. What are the logical consequences of such an ideology?

The mantra of conservatives has become the notion of “personal responsibility”. In short, if everyone were to simply exercise rational “good and moral” choices; that society, as a whole, would become a paradise for individual achievement and social issues would somehow disappear.

This ideology contains an assumption that all have equal capability to make such “good and moral” choices completely discounting individual capability. An additional assumption is that all agree and understand what is good and moral; therefore, they can be held accountable for not making the correct choice.

The arguments concerning individual action and consequences go back centuries. It was an active discussion during Elizabethan England and resulted in the adoption of the Elizabethan Poor Laws. Thus, the concept of the “deserving poor” and “undeserving poor” emerged and was legally recognized. As draconian and barbaric as they seem now, it was clearly movement forward in relieving the plight of some. Central to the concept is Calvinism and Lutheranism’s belief in predestination and living in a state of grace. The protestant notion of predestination and grace involved an accepted proof that one was in the favored state. It was uniformly accepted that earned wealth and power, by the individual, was a sign from the Almighty that one was living in and had achieved a state of Devine Grace. Therefore, the material success of the few was a clear indication of Divine acceptance of those of a worthy nature and lifestyle. In the late 19th century Max Weber (1864 – 1920), a German sociologist studying the Industrial Revolution, coined the concept of the “Protestant Work Ethic” to describe the phenomenon.

Therefore, for those that fail in our society, it is just not a material failure, but is considered a spiritual and moral failure and a separation from Divine Providence. I will not take the time to argue this point, since the purpose of this piece is not the soundness of the notion, but to discuss in terms what will happen if we adopt personal responsibility as conservatives have ascribed.

There are a number of personal failures often referred to. They range from financial failures, moral failures, failures of action and reaction, etc. Often various failures are interconnected that one type of failure contributes to failure in some other areas. An example often cited by many conservatives is the stereotypical inner city African American teenage mother. She probably is part of a multi-generational family with every generation repeating the same bad choices of the previous one, she hasn’t completed her education and the father of the out of wedlock baby is nowhere to be found. So let’s list her poor choices that have resulted in her being on public assistance, possibly for the remainder of her adult life.

Poor Choices:

  1. Participating in out of wedlock sex
  2. Participating in underage sex
  3. Participating in unprotected sex
  4. Dropping out of school because of pregnancy
  5. She hasn’t any employable skills so she could support herself and the child
  6. Deciding to keep the baby and not give it up for adoption


This young woman, who possibly could still be a child herself, has condemned herself to a life that the vast majority would not choose. She is now in a situation where she is on public assistance and barring something extraordinary can count on a life of continuously living on the edge.

When conservatives speak of personal responsibility and suffering the consequences, it remains vague and non-descript. It’s fairly easy to identify the violation of personal responsibility, but what are the consequences that the conservatives are referencing?

Does it mean that we, as a society, should cutoff the offending perpetrator from receiving any type of public assistance? What would be the outcome of doing so? Does it mean that we make it illegal to have a child out of wedlock and the offending perpetrator is subject to fines and/or confinement? Does it mean that the state demand that the fetus be aborted? Does it mean that the state takes custody of the child/children and raises the child in orphanages, foster care or forcibly place the out of wedlock child up for adoption? Does it possibly mean that an out of wedlock birth and public assistance would trigger the perpetrator to be involuntarily sterilized? Does it mean that perhaps we should separate all those receiving public assistance and place them in internment camps or reinstitute the poor farms and homes? Instead of beating around the bush, I want to hear what the conservatives mean by consequences.

Another case in point is the woman who gets married, has children and then for whatever reason is forced into single parenthood through divorce or abandonment. This is an all too familiar scenario casting single parent women into poverty. Do the conservatives want to severely restrict divorce as it was before? What should be the necessary and sufficient grounds for a divorce to be granted?  

It is time for the conservatives to come out from behind their rhetoric and fully disclose what they mean when suffering the consequences of not taking personal responsibility for poor choices.

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Lyle Ruble February 25, 2013 at 02:14 AM
Where are all the conservatives? I figured they would be jumping all over this.
Bob McBride February 25, 2013 at 03:34 AM
Patience, Lyle. Your piece isn't showing up on the main page under the "Local Voices" heading as of yet. Plus you're competing with the Oscars, a "Duck Dynasty" marathon on A&E, "Downton Abbey" on PBS and, at my house, a comfortable couch I only have to myself when the wife is out of town. Sooner or later we'll be back to nit pick your article.
Mike February 26, 2013 at 03:11 PM
Lyle, I consider myself a fiscal conservative, but more socially liberal. People make choices, they should have to live with those choices. Unfortunately, when it comes to situations with children, there are no perfect answers. My first thought is that people who make choices have to live with them, yes, we have public assistance programs, but there should be a cap on what adults can receive. At some point it must be said, however cold it may sound, enough is enough, you are an adult, we can no longer keep sending you money for doing nothing. However, once a child is introduced into the situation, I do not feel it responsible to cap benefits, because a child cannot provide for themselves. Unfortunately, there is no way for a child to benefit directly, and then you run into the situations conservative pundits like to point out, where there are rampant misuses of public assistance (people buying cigarettes, candy, driving nice cars, using Iphones), and this rightly infuriates people. Should people dependent on public assistance be devoid of all happiness? No. But I don't think it's asking too much for people to take personal responsibility. I'm tired of hearing about background as an excuse for poor behavior and stupidity. Look at the World around you, decide how it is appropriate to act, and if you can't do that, you can't have continually ask for and receive help. People do need to take responsibility for their actions, it's very simple, and very complicated.
Mike February 26, 2013 at 03:24 PM
And might I add, I grew up in the North Shore, but my family was not without its difficulties. My dad faced job loss, extended unemployment, and he yes he did utilize his unemployment benefits while he searched non-stop for work. He was not picky, I was young, but if I remember the details, he accepted a job that paid much less than the one he was laid off from. And he worked that job until he retired, doing physical labor to provide for his family. As an adult, I attended college, and post-graduate studies, and I faced unemployment as well. My girlfriend and I had a child before we were married, we focused all of our love & energy on him (and still do). While I searched for a job, my now wife worked part time while I was able to collect some unemployment. We did not spend on anything but necessities. I have been lucky enough to find a good job since that difficult time. The point I'm trying to make is, in this environment, very few people are shielded from the possibility of being thrust into an unknown and difficult situation, and there is a right way to handle it and a wrong way. Sure, not everyone has extended education that can help land them a job that makes it better quickly, but there are less and less people who are like my Dad's generation, willing to take a job, even it's not perfect, to provide for a family, to have a sense of accomplishment because you're earning your keep. We live in a World where all too often people want something for nothing.
Lyle Ruble February 26, 2013 at 03:43 PM
Personal Responsibility is the new code word for: they're not like me or us and we are better than they are. Therefore, we have the right to condemn and punish them.
Mike February 26, 2013 at 03:49 PM
Thanks for your thoughtful response Lyle, obviously you're just looking to pick a fight, so I'll take my constructive conversation elsewhere.
David Tatarowicz February 26, 2013 at 03:56 PM
@Mike I commend your father for as you say, taking a job even if it was not the perfect one. I have done so myself in the past, mostly due to the vagaries of the economy and ups and downs in the industry I primarily worked in. I would like to point out a difference though -- even with the imperfect job, your father was able to get a job that paid enough for you to continue to live in the land of OZ. I also did hard physical labor and earned enough to keep my family in areas that were decent and had good schools. Alas, in the past you could do hard work and get paid well! I myself was a Teamster and worked like a dog, but at least I got more than a bone in return. Today --- it is becoming all one sided. The Wealthy and Management want everything and maybe will throw you a bone !! I wonder when the dog is going to get so hungry that it will start to bite back? Wisconsin particularly with Scott Walker is building up speed --- Downhill --- and the brakes are about burnt out. Even if we were to give Walker the benefit of the doubt a thousand times over, that maybe he is really concerned about this state and ALL of its residents -- he then comes along with a proposal to end the Residency Rule in Milwaukee --- why does he hate the City and County that much? Is the idea to create the greatest poverty possible in the city -- why ???
Lyle Ruble February 26, 2013 at 04:06 PM
@Mike...I am not looking to pick a fight; but, what I am asking for is what does it really mean to accuse someone of irresponsible behavior unless there is some means to force the consequences on the perpetrator. I want to see some constructive suggestions rather than just whine and complain about people expecting others to take care of them. This is where the rubber meets the road and people need to think through the impact on society to continue this attack. Is it going to result in walling off the inner cities, cut off all support and just let people do whatever; knowing full well that it will result in anarchy?
CowDung February 26, 2013 at 04:24 PM
What is so hateful about ending the residency requirements? Does our school administration hate Shorewood because they do not have a residency requirement? Many of our Shorewood teachers do not live in Shorewood. Perhaps we can find better teachers for MPS if we expand the eligibility to include those living outside the city.
David Tatarowicz February 26, 2013 at 04:46 PM
@CD I think it is hateful because it is not a state issue, it is a local issue, and if the rule ends, property values will plummet and the tax base seriously eroded. Republicans say that they are for LOCAL RULE and are against BIG GOVERNMENT -- yet Walker has consistently inserted Big Government into Local Government --- dictating from the Top Down !! How would the residency rule change benefit the state --- Not at All !!! But it will harm both Miwlaukee City and County. Shorewood is the opposite of Milwaukee in property values --- Shorewood is regarded as property rich, which is why we get less in state money for schools. Shorewood is just the opposite from Milwaukee in the school systems -- Shorewood does not have enough resident kids for our schools to operate -- property here is too expensive for many young families that have kids -- that is why Shorewood has to Import Students --- if we did not Import Students and get the State Money that follows those students, we would drastically have to cut back our school system, or raise property taxes so high, that our system would not be sustainable.
CowDung February 26, 2013 at 04:57 PM
If it is a local issue, then the state should end the residency requirement. If a locality wishes to have one, they are still free to do so. The state mandating a residency requirement would be 'dictating from the top down'. Ending the residency requirement would be giving control back to the locals.
Lyle Ruble February 26, 2013 at 05:04 PM
@CowDung....Governor Walker doesn't really care about the city and county, his support of eliminating the residency requirement is a simple political payoff for the police union and firefighters supporting him and endorsing his candidacy for governor.
Lyle Ruble February 26, 2013 at 05:57 PM
@Mike....As frustrating as it may be, there will always be a certain percentage of the population that will require some sort of assistance. If they are a childless adult; do you cut off all support so that they no longer have their survival needs met? Are you willing to participate in genocide by withholding support that may lead to social upheaval? I would be interest in your answer.
Mike February 26, 2013 at 06:10 PM
Lyle, are you kidding me? Genocide? Get off your high horse and use some damn common sense, you sound like a complete idiot, and I'm not into name callling. A childless adult, assuming they don't have some sort of debilitating condition, should be able to take care of themselves. There are programs that exist to help people get jobs, help people write resumes, etc, etc. Telling a capable adult that they have exhausted their free ride is not tantamount to genocide. Plug your bleeding heart and use some common sense. People should be motivated to succeed and take care of themselves, send them a check every week for doing nothing and they'll never do anything. And no, this isn't about race, ethinicity or anything, there are people of every background who are guilty of taking advantage of the system.
CowDung February 26, 2013 at 06:17 PM
That makes for good talking points, but why do we need to have residency requirements for public employees? It just limits the employment candidates to those willing to live inside city limits.
Lyle Ruble February 26, 2013 at 06:34 PM
@CowDung....I ask you, why is it the state's business if a city, town, village or county wants to impose a residency requirement? Shouldn't be up to the local citizens?
Greg February 26, 2013 at 10:27 PM
Does Mayor Barrett care about the city? Should residency requirements be expanded to other areas? Would Barrett or his wife give up their job if Wauwatosa had a residency requirement? Should families be split up due to RRs?
Greg February 26, 2013 at 10:31 PM
Personal responsibility as it relates to the poor. At some point it is cruel to be kind. “I am for doing good to the poor, but...I think the best way of doing good to the poor, is not making them easy in poverty, but leading or driving them out of it. I observed...that the more public provisions were made for the poor, the less they provided for themselves, and of course became poorer. And, on the contrary, the less was done for them, the more they did for themselves, and became richer.” Benjamin Franklin
Lyle Ruble February 26, 2013 at 11:06 PM
@Greg....That's funny. What are you going to do to "lead or drive them out of it"? Just as already been done and it hasn't worked, what then?
Lyle Ruble February 27, 2013 at 12:44 AM
@Mike....The childless adult who refuses to take care of themselves, what do you do about it? Do you just allow them to founder and die?
Greg February 27, 2013 at 03:14 AM
Funny, really?
Mike February 27, 2013 at 02:14 PM
@Lyle, seriously? The choice is lifetime welfare or death? At some point you can't prop up people who just want a free ride, if they want to seek out help from private organizations who help out people, great. Also, do you not hear how stupid it sounds to suggest the only alternatives are a lifetime free ride or death? That's honestly the dumbest thing I've heard in a long time.
Lyle Ruble February 27, 2013 at 04:14 PM
@Mike...Thanks for hanging in there. Yes, it's ridiculous to suggest that someone who is cutoff of public assistance would just founder and die. I took it to the extreme to make a point. We already know there are a number of people who are legitimately disabled because of physical, mental, low cognitive ability, substance addiction, veterans, etc. This group is usually listed as the "deserving poor". These people get caught up in the system and are equally scapegoated by those that think anyone who is on assistance is milking the system. What currently happens when people who aren't disabled wind up receiving public benefits, it is usually from having children. After the W-2 benefits run out (5 years lifetime benefit), people can still get food stamps and healthcare, but no cash. This usually leads to people getting involved in the strong underground economy that dominates the inner cities. This includes all forms of illegal activities; drug dealing, gang banging, prostitution and any number of other activities that represents a cash economy. The underground economy grows as other benefits decline. For many, they wind up in the criminal justice system and are incarcerated, continuing their dependence on the government. When conservatives use the term "personal responsibility" they don't seem to fully understand what is really involved. To think that we'll ever be free of supporting people is unrealistic and we need to accept there will always be those that need support.
CowDung February 27, 2013 at 04:20 PM
That's actually an interesting point, Greg. How do they handle situations where a husband and wife might work for two different municipalities?
Greg February 27, 2013 at 07:12 PM
Lyle, Since WEAC supports, and always has supported, the end of the residency requirement, does that not shoot your "payoff" theory into the crapper? If the Governor's position on this issue was incorrect you could possibly call it pandering to all of the affected unions, but it's not incorrect.


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