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.
- Participating in out of wedlock sex
- Participating in underage sex
- Participating in unprotected sex
- Dropping out of school because of pregnancy
- She hasn’t any employable skills so she could support herself and the child
- 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.