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June 29th 2009 print

Bill Muehlenberg

Paying People to be Responsible

The concept of personal responsibility has taken a battering lately. People are quite happy to blame anyone and anything other than themselves for their behaviour and actions. We are happy to pass the buck and shift the blame instead of taking ownership of what we do.

The concept of personal responsibility has taken a battering lately. People are quite happy to blame anyone and anything other than themselves for their behaviour and actions. We are happy to pass the buck and shift the blame instead of taking ownership of what we do.

Some people used to jokingly claim, “The devil made me do it”. Now we mostly say, “Society made me do it”. Following Rousseau, we think that we are basically OK, but society corrupts us. And in the past few decades we increasingly use this excuse: “My genes made me do it”.

So today all sorts of behaviours, some of them anti-social – if not criminal – are being swept under the carpet because we don’t want to take responsibility for our actions. Thus we even have activities such as adultery and rape being explained, if not excused, in terms of our evolutionary hardwiring.

Some years ago social commentator Ben Wattenberg wrote that Americans have an obsession with what he called “The Victim Dictum” which states that “Every Problem Can Be Assigned To a Hostile Outside Agent”.  Finding someone or something else to blame for your crimes and misdemeanours always beats taking personal responsibility for them.

It goes without saying that no society can long last when most people no longer regard themselves as responsible for anything. Indeed, when most people expect that they are entitled to all sorts of things, and that a nanny state should continuously and instantly cater for all these entitlements, then the rot has well and truly set in.

Consider a recent government announcement in this regard. The Federal Government is considering paying people to lose weight. In the interests of tackling the national obesity problem, tax breaks or subsidies might be paid to overweight Australians. These could be used for such things as gym memberships and sporting equipment.

Now this is not altogether amiss. Governments of course use financial rewards and penalties as incentives all the time, and sometimes there is a place for them. The carrot and stick approach certainly can achieve results. Indeed, it is a truism that whatever the government taxes, it tends to get less of, and whatever the government subsidises, it tends to get more of.

Thus governments can seek to regulate behaviour and activities by applying these financial rewards and punishments. For example, to reduce cigarette smoking, government affix huge taxes to tobacco products. And to encourage green activities, government subsidise the purchase of things like water tanks or solar panels.

Given that obesity is a national medical problem, there is a place for government incentives to reduce overeating. But the concern is that more and more nanny state actions will simply reduce personal responsibility.

As governments take ever more interest and involvement in our day to day lives, it becomes all too easy for people to expect the government to do it all. And in an age of rights talk, the idea of government entitlements, coupled with the increasing reach of the welfare state, is producing a docile population in which the state is expected to do everything.

The question is, is there any end to the growth of the nanny state? While government subsidies may help us in our weight loss regimes, how about an emphasis on personal responsibility? How about letting people know that they are actually responsible for all sort of activities and behaviours, and that it is not the government’s business to get involved in the minutiae of personal behaviour?

After all, when we go down this path of subsidising good behaviours, where will it end? Maybe governments should pay people to not litter, or to not drive while drunk, or to not be racists. Maybe governments should pay people to be nice, or to hug their mums, or to keep their lawns tidy.

What happened to personal responsibility? What happened to character, courage, and conscience? That was the question Dr Laura Schlessinger asked in her best-selling 1996 volume, How Could You Do That? The Abdication of Character, Courage, and Conscience.

Of course there is a place for some government assistance here. I am not a libertarian, and governments can and should come along side and help people to do the right thing. Thus in the past governments have offered certain benefits to heterosexual married couples which were not granted to other types of relationships, because of the enormous social goods and benefits which marriage gave to society.

And insurance companies for example will reward certain behaviours, such as non-smoking, while those who engage in high-risk behaviours will have to pay higher premiums, and so on. So there is a place for recognising right choices, and penalising bad choices.

But ultimately this must come from within. Indeed, at the end of the day there are only two major motivations for ethical behaviour: cops and conscience. When we are inner-directed, motivated by the courage of our convictions, responding to the inner moral light, then we don’t need a nanny state continually looking over our shoulders.

But when we have deadened our consciences, and extinguished the moral law written on our hearts, then external policing must come to the fore. That is why modern societies are awash with laws, rules and regulations. Increasingly we are not driven by the voice of conscience, so we must be herded by external state restraints.

And when a society goes down the road of allowing police enforcement to be the chief means by which morality is maintained, then such a society is in terminal decline. As Edmund Burke rightly observed, “Society cannot exist unless a controlling power upon will and appetite be placed somewhere, and the less of it there is within, the more there must be without.”

As governments more and more take over the role of family and the church, it also has to take on the role of producing and maintaining morality. And the modern secular state can only do that by the use of carrot and stick, by police on every corner, and by overflowing law courts.

Malcolm Muggeridge once remarked, “The great fallacy of our time is the one that says we may pursue collective virtue apart from personal behavior.” Nations are great only when individual citizens are great. And that greatness depends on character, virtue and taking responsibility for one’s actions.

So by all means bring on the sporting club subsidies. But governments must also seek to remind us of the overwhelming importance of individual virtue, morality and conscience. Without all this, no amount of carrot and stick regulation will even come close to dealing with our many pressing national problems.