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The Role of Responsibility in a Free Society

One way to think about the role of responsibility in a free society is to imagine a society where freedom is absent. Writers from ancient times have drawn sketches of just this sort of society. These imagined Utopias–conjured up by Plato, Thomas More, and the medieval monk Campanella–have all been similar in their broad outlines. Property is held in common and distributed by the magistrates according to need. Children are raised collectively. There is no freedom of association, freedom of education, or freedom to enter or exit the community. And since individual decision-making is forbidden, developing a sense of responsibility is a moot point.

Our ancestors enjoyed reading such thought experiments for amusement, enchantment, and philosophic reflection, but they were never considered plausible political programs. Until this century.

Between these earlier Utopian visions and us today stands the imposing figure of Marx. His speculations must be put in a different category from the older Utopias because he was not performing a mental experiment but, rather, advancing a political platform. Because of our tragic experience of the ghastly totalitarian regimes of this century, we know all too well that such schemes as Marx’s result not in Utopia, but in chaos and darkness. The end of freedom is, by necessity, the end of responsibility, and the end of responsibility is the end of civilization.

By assuming responsibility for ever-expanding sectors of society, government renders the rest of society less responsible. Charles Murray put his able finger on this problem when he wrote that “the most important change in social policy during the last thirty years” was “Not the amount of money government spent. Not how much was wasted. Not even the ways in which the government hurt those it intended to help. Ultimately, the most important effect of government’s metastasizing role was to strip daily life of much of the stuff of life”–that “stuff of life” being, “feeding the hungry, succoring the sick, comforting the sad, nurturing the children, tending the elderly, and chastising sinners.”

To make individuals more responsible, we must ask government to assume less control over their lives, for resolution to social problems is more often achieved, not by experiments in the uses of power, but by relations characterized by virtue and its necessary predicate, liberty.

Intelligent discussion about liberty and responsibility requires an examination of the role of coercion in social relationships, and it is on this score that we are required to look at the extent to which government has assumed, or has been permitted to assume, responsibility in areas of life that were previously under the domain of civil society. It would be a mistake to construe this project as essentially anti-government; it is no more anti-government than a lifeguard is anti-water. When swimmers behave irresponsibly around water, or when the undercurrent of the tide is, unknown to the swimmer, strong and deadly, then it is time for the lifeguard to sound the alarm.

When observing its proper tasks–national security, enforcement of contracts, defense of property, and, above all, protection of the right to life–government is a good thing. But to say government is a necessary institution is not to say it is the morally primary one. We cannot achieve heaven here on earth, nor should we try. We can, however, recapture freedom and a traditional understanding of responsibility. If this is to be done, though, the crucial instruments of change will not be the functionaries of the state, but the father whose faithfulness to his family forms the moral tenor of succeeding generations and the mother whose reverence for and nourishing of life ensures the very existence mankind’s future.