Most of us believe that people normally possess free will, the fundamental capacity to choose their actions. It also is commonly held that people are responsible for acquiring the skills necessary to earn a living that would allow them to take care of themselves and their families. We believe further that most people are responsible for the direction their lives take and should receive the benefits of their industry and bear the costs of their decisions and mistakes. To use a cliché, we believe that the world does not owe anyone a living.

It is a central tenet of libertarianism that the values of personal freedom and responsibility are indivisible. A corollary to that proposition is the view that respect for one of those values implies and requires a respect for the other. The notion of limited government defended by Madison and Jefferson arguably takes for granted the indivisibility of freedom and responsibility. Friedrich Hayek, a Nobel laureate in economics, explained in his 1960 work, The Constitution of Liberty, “a free society will not function or maintain itself unless its members regard it as right that each individual occupy the position that results from his action and accept it as due to his own action.”

Modern American culture is commonly criticized because many of its members appear to have increasingly lost a sense of personal responsibility. The causes for this decline may be difficult to isolate, but symptoms of the decline are easily recognizable. Throughout the 20th century, but especially since the 1960s, Americans have come to expect more from government and demand less from themselves. That trend is evident not only in the growth of paternalistic laws, but also in the growth of the welfare state. Many, if not most, Americans have come to believe that all citizens are entitled to food, shelter, jobs, education, and medical care, whether through their own efforts or, failing that, through those of government. In his penetrating 1998 critique of the welfare state, A Life of One’s Own, philosopher David Kelley argues:

The premise of the welfare state—the sprawling network of programs for transferring wealth from taxpayers to recipients—is that the world does owe us a living.… [The welfare state] confers entitlements to goods independent of the process of earning them. It elevates needs and downplays responsibility. The result is a public morality at odds with our personal standards.

Libertarian critics argue that, by treating goods and services as things to which citizens are entitled, the welfare state not only violates property rights, but also erases the traditional distinction between duty and charity and attacks personal responsibility. David Kelley clarifies:

A right is something an individual can demand as his due without apology for asking and without gratitude for receiving. When that concept is extended to the provision of social welfare, the necessary result is to empower those who make claims on public provision and silence those who do the providing. Since the New Deal, and especially during the three decades since the creation of the Great Society programs, the legal framework of entitlements has given rise to a public spirit of entitlement, a sense that the world does owe us a living.

Many critics theorize that this spirit of entitlement is both a symptom and a cause of expansive government. In any event, it is an obstacle to limiting government and an impediment to nourishing personal responsibility because a spirit of entitlement encourages people to depend on others rather than on themselves and to hold others rather than themselves accountable for their circumstances. Critics of the welfare state argue that when governments become involved in forcibly redistributing money, they not only violate property rights, but they also force citizens to be responsible for other citizens in ways that citizens are not expected to be responsible for themselves. In short, the critics assert that the welfare state violates any defensible notion of personal responsibility because it holds taxpayers varyingly responsible for strangers, but never fully responsible for themselves.

Henry Hazlitt explained what he describes as the essence of the welfare state as follows:

In this state nobody pays for the education of his own children, but everybody pays for the education of everybody else’s children. Nobody pays for his own medical bills, but everybody pays everybody else’s medical bills. Nobody helps his own old parents but everybody else’s old parents.… The welfare state … is the great fiction by which everybody tries to live at the expense of everybody else.

Critics argue that the welfare state requires many citizens to carry not only their burdens but also those of others, relieving many people of the responsibility for their actions and circumstances. Accordingly, economist Walter Williams, in his 1999 book, More Liberty Means Less Government, wrote,

If we say that one person has a government‐​guaranteed right to food or housing, it means that another person must have less of something in order for government to make good on that “right.” In other words, government does not have any resources of its own. For government to give one person something, it must first take it from another person, usually through taxes. Thus, one person’s “right” to food or housing imposes a burden on another person requiring him to have less of something.

Critics also argue that private charities and private businesses are responsible in ways that governments are not. Unlike welfare states, private charities can and often do distinguish between the deserving and undeserving poor, between the unfortunate and imprudent or lazy. Further, neither charities nor private businesses can afford to operate when their expenses exceed their resources. Governments, however, can continue to raise taxes and deficit‐​spend, creating a spiral that generates ever‐​greater burdens on current and future taxpayers.

Another major impediment to developing and exercising personal responsibility is the readiness with which many people see their circumstances as due principally, if not entirely, to factors outside their control. To the extent that people see themselves not as free agents, but as victims of their environments, genetic heritage, or some mental illness, they may view themselves as incapable of exercising personal responsibility. It follows that if people believe that they are incapable of changing their lives, they will, in fact, be unable to do so. Although there are psychologists and psychiatrists who highly value personal responsibility, the direction of psychiatry today is to regard the actions of people as determined by forces outside their control. An official classification of mental illness and mental disorders, the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of the American Psychiatric Association has tended to expand over the years to include as mental disorders simply self‐​defeating assumptions, such as the belief that one is hopelessly unattractive. Although the psychiatrist Thomas Szasz has spent decades arguing against the classification of aberrant behavior as disease, that proposition is uncritically accepted by most people.

In addition to the many cultural influences that discourage people from believing in and taking responsibility for themselves, many people have personal incentives for rejecting responsibility. There are those people who find it frightening to think that their success or failure, happiness or unhappiness, may depend largely, if not principally, on their own actions. Many find it easier not to take charge of their lives and instead to blame others or the circumstances in which they are placed. Admitting that one is principally responsible for one’s life takes courage, and making major changes in one’s life can require a great deal of work, belief in oneself, and discipline.

Further Readings

Hayek, Friedrich A. The Road to Serfdom. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1944.

Kelley, David. A Life of One’s Own: Individual Rights and the Welfare State. Washington, DC: Cato Institute, 1998.

Magnet, Myron. The Dream and the Nightmare: The Sixties’ Legacy to the Underclass. New York: Morrow, 1993.

Olasky, Marvin. The Tragedy of American Compassion. Elgin, IL: Crossway, 1992.

Steele, Shelby. The Content of Our Character. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1990.

Sykes, Charles J. A Nation of Victims: The Decay of the American Character. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1992.

Szasz, Thomas. The Myth of Mental Illness: Foundations of a Theory of Personal Conduct. New York: Harper, 1961.

Williams, Walter E. Do the Right Thing: The People’s Economist Speaks. Stanford, CA: Hoover Institution Press, 1995.

Originally published