January 30, 2002 -- In his powerful State of the Union address, President Bush gave voice to the two deepest truths of a free society: that the essential function of its government is to provide security, and that it depends on a culture of responsibility.
On the first of these themes, his words were as clear and forceful as his actions have been in waging the war on terrorism. Looking beyond the immediate threat, he set a long-term goal of eliminating terrorist networks and the regimes that sponsor them. And looking beyond the physical threat, he identified the underlying conflict of values: “They embrace tyranny and death as a cause and a creed….We choose freedom and the dignity of every life.”
In calling for “a new culture of responsibility,” however, Mr. Bush gave us only part of the truth—and not the most important part. Responsibility, he said, means service to our neighbors and to the country, the pursuit of “goals larger than self.” He called upon us to give two years of our lives as volunteers in civil defense or in charitable work at home or abroad.
There’s no denying that free men and women take responsibility for maintaining the fabric of their society by helping those who suffer through no fault of their own, especially in the case of emergencies like September 11. On that awful day, and the days that followed, Americans responded with extraordinary initiative, setting an example to the world of how free people deal with disaster. We did not wait for the government to tell us what to do. We did not wait for disaster relief from other countries. Rescue workers rushed to the scene and did their jobs, despite the risk. So many people volunteered to give blood that hospitals had to turn many of them away. We opened our checkbooks and sent hundreds of millions of dollars to help the victims.
But life is not a series of emergencies, and responsibility is not primarily a matter of obligations to others. Our deepest responsibility is to ourselves: to set our goals in life as individuals and to pursue them by our own efforts. That means providing for our needs through honest work, acquiring the knowledge and skill it takes to succeed in life, caring for our children and helping them grow, making time for the friends and family who bring us joy, and attending to our physical and spiritual health. Freedom and responsibility are two sides of the same resolve to take charge of our lives. It is only when we do so that we have the resources to help others.
Freedom and responsibility are linked, but that’s not because responsibility is the price we pay for the privilege of freedom. Freedom is not a privilege; it is a right. America was founded on the principle of individualism, the principle that every person is an end in himself, with the right to pursue his own happiness, and that government is the servant of the people, not the other way around. America is not a tribe. It is not a family. It is a nation whose common institutions protect the freedom of individuals to live their private, personal lives. This is what the terrorists hate about us, what they sought to destroy, and what we rallied to defend.
If President Bush truly wishes to promote a culture of responsibility, his first priority should be to remove the obstacles that government itself has placed in the way. He should vigorously pursue the privatization of Social Security, so that we can take charge of planning and investing for our own retirement. He should renew his call for vouchers in education so that we can take real responsibility for our children’s education. He should not be offering prescription drugs or other new benefits that only make us more dependent on government, and will inevitably erode our freedom.
A freer country would be a more responsible country, and a stronger one. And a government that knew its limits would be stronger, too—better able to pursue that mission of peace and security that President Bush has so brilliantly begun.
David Kelley earned his Ph.D. in philosophy from Princeton University in 1975, and later taught cognitive science and philosophy at Vassar College and Brandeis University. His articles on social issues and public policy have appeared in Harper's, The Sciences, Reason, Harvard Business Review, The Freeman, and elsewhere. His books include Unrugged Individualism: The Selfish Basis of Benevolence; The Contested Legacy of Ayn Rand; The Evidence of the Senses; and The Art of Reasoning, one of the most widely used logic textbooks in the country. Kelley is founder and chief intellectual officer of The Atlas Society.