Individual Responsibility Lives or Dies in Republican Politics

Updated on October 7, 2019
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Scott S. Bateman is chair of Hanover County Community Services Board, which helps people coping with substance abuse and mental illness.


Individual responsibility remains a cornerstone of Republican political philosophy if it encourages the full potential of people while understanding their limits at the same time.

What is individual responsibility? The word “responsible” is essentially a merging two words—“response” and “able”. Its origins include the French word “responsable.” Literally, a responsible individual is able to respond. Whether or not they choose to respond is a different matter.

Diverse Examples of Individual Responsibility

A business owner who opens a store five years before a recession, builds a large client base and saves a lot of money is better able to respond to a recession than one who opens a store and spends all of the profits on himself. Good intentions don’t always lead to good choices.

Some people are physically and mentally able to respond to a situation more effectively than others. A woman born with an IQ of 150 is much more able to “respond” to a PhD program at Harvard University than a woman born with intellectual disabilities and an IQ of 80.

A man with a healthy heart and two good legs is better able to “respond” to a 100-mile bike ride than a military veteran who lost both legs to a roadside bomb in Afghanistan.

The above three examples represent powerful forces that affect how a life evolves over time—choice, genetics, and environment. Plenty of scientific evidence supports this view, but all three forces have different levels of impact on individual responsibility and its place in Republican political philosophy.

Some people are simply more capable than others. Some have the ability to become more responsible and others do not.

The Responsible Self

The ideal responsible person in Republican philosophy is completely independent and self-reliant. He or she does not need the help of government in any form at any time.

As a result, government for these ideal people is smaller. Because it is smaller, fewer tax dollars are necessary to maintain it. Lower taxes are a consequence of smaller government. A smaller government is the consequence of fully responsible people. A society made up entirely of independent and self-reliant people does not need government at all.

That leaves a country with a government largely consisting of a military for self defense. Such is the utopia of Libertarians. Such a society is possible if it consists entirely of people who choose all of their actions and control all of their outcomes. But when and where in human history has such a society appeared?

"Be yourself; no base imitator of another, but your best self. There is something which you can do better than another. Listen to the inward voice and bravely obey that. Do the things at which you are great, not what you were never made for," says Ralph Waldo Emerson.


Family Next: Collective Responsibility

Collective responsibility takes over where individual capability ends. People with severe intellectual, emotional or physical disabilities are irresponsible in the literal meaning of responsibility. They have limited abilities to respond.

A Republican philosophy that emphasizes community, small federal government and states’ rights has a logical answer to the above situation. It begins with family.

The family of that “irresponsible” individual is responsible for his or her care up to the limit of their own capabilities. Their capabilities include time, money and energy.

A teenager who causes a serious car accident has to face charges in court. The cost of a lawyer is far behind that teenager’s income at a fast-food restaurant. The family faces a choice between a court-appointed attorney with little financial motivation to help or a family-paid attorney who will do a much better job of representing the teen.

But just as an individual has limits, so does a family.


Community: Help Beyond the Family

A single parent with a severely disabled child faces a dilemma. The child requires intensive care, but the parent needs a job for food, shelter and other necessities. The parent can’t do both day-long care and work an eight-hour job.

At that point, the community is collectively responsible—again, able to respond—in the form of non-profit agencies and volunteer organizations that rely on community contributions.

Agencies may provide services in the form of support for that disabled child or even financial assistance so that the parent can hire day care for the child. Maybe the parent is so financially drained that he or she can’t afford a home, and a non-profit organization such as Habitat for Humanity has the answer.

But non-profit community agencies also have their limits. In some locations, the agencies are weak to nonexistent. Some communities contribute more money and volunteers than others.


Finally: The Government Answer

When community resources reach their limit, only then does government become involved, according to this view of Republican political philosophy. Government action follows a clear and simple set of steps depending on the geographic impact of the problem and again the limitations of government resources.

For example, Community Service Boards are common throughout the country. These agencies, usually administered by counties, offer help for people with mental illness, substance abuse or developmental disabilities.

The county administers the program because the degree of need varies from one county to another, the needs are often immediate and the clients and services are local. However, state and federal governments contribute money because a county in rural West Virginia doesn’t have the same tax revenue per person as a county in suburban Washington DC.

Issues common to many communities in a specific region require cooperation among them or more likely the involvement of the state. For example, a severe weather event such as a hurricane causes $100 million in damage to six counties along the Florida coast. The event goes beyond a single county, but it doesn’t go beyond a single state. Responsibility for cleaning up the damage belongs to the counties first with help from the state. In theory, it does not belong to the federal government because the damage isn’t multistate.

Obviously, it does become a federal issue when the damage is massive, multi-state and beyond the resources of the individual states.

When Individual Responsibility Dies

Individual responsibility suffers in Republican philosophy when party members don’t recognize the above limits of people. In extreme cases, it becomes a “you’re on your own” view of the world that doesn’t recognize the role of genetics, environment, and pure luck.

This leads these individuals to an uncaring, anti-community outlook that is dangerously aggressive. It is a far cry from the “compassionate conservative” concept of George W. Bush.

The Democratic party might also improve its image by embracing individual responsibility and emphasizing the limits that do recognize luck, genetics, and environment.

Either way, a society benefits when it encourages fully responsible individuals and also recognizes their limits. A society loses empathy, compassion, and social order when it looks the other way.

© 2019 Scott S Bateman


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