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Obama's Era Of Responsibility
Summer 2009 issue -- “What is required of us now,” said President Barack Obama in his inaugural speech, “is a new era of responsibility—a recognition, on the part of every American, that we have duties to ourselves, our nation, and the world….” Shortly thereafter, he used the same phrase as the title of his 2010 budget, which Congress has passed with minor alterations. In these and other ways, the President has made it clear that responsibility is to be the theme of his administration, playing the same role in recruiting popular support that the theme of “change” did during his election campaign.
This theme does seem to resonate with the public. The financial meltdown that has wiped out savings and plunged us into a global recession brought an end to what many people now see as a binge of wild spending and wilder speculation, from which we have awakened with a ghastly hangover. Time to sober up. That was the message of a recent cover essay in Time magazine. During the twenty-five-year boom that began in the Reagan years, wrote novelist Kurt Anderson, Americans came to resemble Homer Simpson—“childish, irresponsible, willfully oblivious, fat and happy”—in our heedless consumption and pursuit of easy wealth. But now, after the meltdown, “We are like substance abusers coming off a long bender … taking the messes we’ve made as a sobering wake-up call.”
The economic problems we face are indeed the product of irresponsibility, at least in part. Politicians in Congress created Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac and forced them to make risky loans in the name of equality. The housing bubble was inflated by home buyers who took on mortgages far beyond their means, and by Federal Reserve policies that kept interest rates artificially low. Financial firms invested in new forms of debt and equity that transgressed all bounds of prudence. As others have argued in these pages, the crisis resulted from irresponsibility in many different forms.
Obama’s budget, however, is hardly an exercise in fiscal sobriety. Together with the stimulus bill he pushed through Congress, it will result in deficit spending on a massive, and yes, irresponsible scale. In bailing out the auto industry and forcing banks to renegotiate loans with homeowners who can’t meet payments, the government is acting to rescue people from the consequences of their own actions. “Government is promoting bad behavior,” said CNBC reporter Rick Santelli in his famous outburst on the floor of the Chicago commodities exchange. “Do we really want to subsidize the losers’ mortgages?” Santelli’s “rant” launched the Tea Party movement, which has less to do with taxes per se than with outrage at the unfairness of punishing responsible people for the sake of bailing out the irresponsible.
This outrage springs from the implicit premise that responsibility is exercised by individuals as they think, choose, and act in pursuit of their goals. This individualist view is the foundation of a free society, based on individual rights to life, liberty, and property. It is the view that we are responsible for our own lives—for working to obtain the things we want and for dealing with the consequences of our actions—but not responsible to anyone else beyond respecting their rights. In its most consistent form, it is what I have called the entrepreneurial concept of responsibility: the idea that we are entrepreneurs in our lives, self-owners who take initiative for running our lives and reaping the rewards. (See next article, “Life: Your Adventure in Entrepreneurship")
That is not Obama’s premise, however. He is a communitarian, not an individualist. Communitarians hold that we are partly constituted by the unchosen relationships in which we find ourselves enmeshed. For the members of a community, writes philosopher Michael Sandel, “[C]ommunity describes not just what they have as fellow citizens but also what they are … not merely an attribute but a constituent of their identity.” That social constituent in our identity carries with it a host of unchosen obligations to society. It means that we cannot find fulfillment without a sense of belonging to social groups and networks, and that belonging entails obligations to serve and support others, as well as the right to be supported by them. Communitarians urge that major areas of life be moved from the private to the public sector—that is, removed from the realm of individual choice and responsibility, with interactions governed by contract and market exchange, and transferred to the realm of collective decision-making, with rights and responsibilities defined in accordance with the perceived good of the collective. As Obama put it in his famous speech at the 2004 Democratic national convention, “It’s that fundamental belief—I am my brother’s keeper, I am my sister’s keeper—that makes this country work. It’s what allows us to pursue our individual dreams, yet still come together as a single American family.”
In its invocation of “brother’s keeper” altruism, Obama’s outlook is of a piece with modern welfare-state liberalism. So are many of his policy goals, such as a national health care system. Liberals, however, have previously focused mainly on expanding welfare rights to health care, education, housing, retirement benefits, and other goods. Even though such goods were to be provided by the state, they were cast as individual rights, things to which individuals are entitled. Communitarians distinguish themselves from liberals by arguing that welfare rights must be balanced by responsibilities to society. Amitai Etzioni, for example, argues that the “selfish” interest in entitlements must be balanced by a sense of responsibility—not to ourselves, not to the facts of reality, but to society. Society is entitled, for example, to demand that people wear seat belts and motorcycle helmets to avoid injuries that will consume social resources. “To insist that people drive safely and responsibly is hence a concern for the needs of others and the community.”
In making responsibility the theme of his administration, therefore, Obama is not simply responding to the country’s post-bubble blues. He is signaling his philosophical agenda. As Mark Schmitt noted in The American Prospect last fall:
- This inclusive, communitarian populism is characterized by few enemies and very little talk of “rights.” Forced by Tom Brokaw to define health care as either a right or a responsibility, Obama called it “a right,” and said his health plan would make it one. But on his own, that’s rarely how he talks about health care or economic fairness—both are wrapped up in a sense of national purpose, not individual rights…. Obama doesn’t talk about “responsibility” in McCain’s sense—you’re responsible for your health and if you get sick and can’t afford it, tough—but a deeper responsibility to engage and build the kind of system or order that achieves these goals. [“Populism Without Pitchforks,” TheAmerican Prospect (web only), October 20, 2008]
Obama’s public statements about health care reform bear out Schmitt’s observation. Obama speaks of health as a collective good that government can and should pursue, and that everyone is responsible for helping to achieve. Invariably he makes the point that individuals must take responsibility for their own part in this national purpose by adopting healthy lifestyles. “Preventive care only works if Americans take personal responsibility for their health and make the right decisions in their own lives—if they eat the right foods, stay active, and stop smoking.” But Americans, in Obama’s view, cannot be expected to exercise that responsibility without help from the state. His website pledges to fund “community based preventive interventions to help Americans make better choices to improve their health,” such as “biking paths and walking trails; local grocery stores with fruits and vegetables; restricted advertising for tobacco and alcohol to children; and wellness and educational campaigns.” Uncle Sam wants you to be healthy—and he’s here to help.
There could hardly be a clearer expression of what I call the managerial concept of responsibility, in contrast with the fully individualist entrepreneurial conception. In Obama’s view, we are licensed to manage our lives as a franchise from society, complete with help from the central office, with rules we must follow, and with the obligation to help other franchisees when called upon. As cells in the social organism, our responsibility for ourselves rests on a more fundamental responsibility to society.
The welfare state that liberals built in the twentieth century removed major areas of life from individual control and responsibility. The state will educate our children, so we are not responsible for paying tuition or for deciding what curriculum our children need. The state will give us a pension and health care when we retire, so we are not fully responsible for saving. The state will screen the food and drugs we buy, so we are not fully responsible for deciding what to consume. Although communitarian sentiments were always one strand in the liberal case for the welfare state, liberals tended to put more emphasis on enabling individual autonomy by ensuring the conditions for individual self-actualization. In Obama’s quest to expand the welfare state, and the role of government in general, this quasi-individualist strand plays a much smaller role; the claims of community as an end in itself loom much larger.
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 Harpers, 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 executive director of The Atlas Society.
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