Responsibility Redefined

Trying to have government measure and reward “personal responsibility” is a bad idea, but agency does have a role in a just and equal society.

By Yascha Mounk

Tagged individualismJobsPopulismWelfare

Ever since Ronald Reagan promised to make “free enterprise and personal responsibility” a central theme of his presidency, talk about responsibility has become an important part of American political life. After Reagan, similar appeals quickly entered the vocabulary of liberal politicians and even egalitarian philosophers. Despite their deep political differences, all took to defending their favorite public policies in the name of responsibility. And despite their widely diverging ideas about who should be held accountable for their actions—Are the poor at fault for being in need? Can someone who was traumatized as a child be responsible for the crimes he commits as an adult?—each believes that the state is justified in discriminating between those it deems to have acted responsibly and those it deems to have acted irresponsibly.

Perhaps the most striking example of this transformation is the influence that notions of responsibility have had on the American welfare state. When Congress decided to “end welfare as we know it” with bipartisan support in 1996, the desire to punish people who fail to live up to their responsibilities was an important goal of both parties. For that reason, a work requirement that excluded people who weren’t employed from most forms of state assistance—even if they were raising children or couldn’t find a job because of a recession—became the cornerstone of the most significant reform of the American welfare state since the war on poverty. It should hardly come as a surprise, then, that welfare reform quite literally bore its appeal to responsibility on its sleeve: Its official name was the “Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act.”

These developments are most pronounced in the United States, a country in whose political firmament self-reliance has always shone a little more brightly than solidarity. But the idea has also spread to countries like the United Kingdom, Spain, and Germany. It is therefore no exaggeration to say that responsibility has quickly become central to the political imagination throughout North America, Western Europe, and beyond. Economic questions that might have been settled from the point of view of structural considerations—say, the likely macroeconomic effect of making welfare payments conditional—now turn on the deeply moralized determination of individual action and culpability. Meanwhile, those who are dependent on state assistance now need to demonstrate that they are not in a state of need because they have made frivolous choices. As a result, they spend a good part of their time on such activities as taking drug tests to prove they are clean or applying for jobs they have little chance of getting to demonstrate they are actively seeking work.

This punitive focus on the actions of particular individuals is deeply pernicious. It leads us to underestimate what we owe our fellow citizens irrespective of their choices. It encourages us to disregard the larger structural factors that shape the most important economic outcomes. Perhaps most importantly, it blinds us to other important political values, like the desire to live in a society of equals—one in which the poor, rather than being mere objects of pity, actually enjoy equal standing in the eyes of their more affluent compatriots.

The rise of the far-right populists—from Donald Trump in the United States and Marine Le Pen in France to Viktor Orbán in Hungary—has given us a taste of what happens to liberal democracies when large swaths of the population feel that they are no longer making economic progress; when they fear that their standard of living is liable only to deteriorate in the future; and when they are furious that (to add insult to injury) political and economic elites seem to be blaming them for their troubles. Stemming the rise of this populist tide will be the most urgent political task of the coming decades. In places like France, where the populists are still in the opposition, it means working hard to expose the easy solutions they propose to complex problems as cynical make-belief. In places like the United States, where they are already in power, it means fighting the repeal of basic social entitlements—and vigorously resisting any attempt to undermine democratic norms and independent power centers. But in both places, defending the liberal order will also require something more far-reaching: a vision for a reformed welfare state that can empower citizens facing the deep social upheaval of automation and globalization, and calm some of their well-founded economic anxiety. A growing swath of the population is starting to conclude that they may find it impossible to find decent employment no matter how hard they try. If we are to reestablish the foundations for the broad-based prosperity on which democracy’s stability has always depended, it’s all the more urgent that we overcome a single-minded focus on personal responsibility that has narrowed what kinds of policy ideas we take seriously, and what kinds of economic institutions we can envisage. It is time to rethink the meaning—and indeed the promise—of responsibility.

A Narrow Notion of Responsibility

Responsibility can mean many different things in its various everyday uses. It can be a call to help others, for example by serving one’s country, by taking care of one’s children, or simply by helping an old lady cross the street. It can be an admonishment to act morally in one’s private life, for example by being a good parent or an honest partner. Finally, it can also mean facing up to mistakes, taking ownership over poor decisions instead of quibbling them away with bad excuses. But while everyday uses of “responsibility” retain a great variety of meanings, the political meaning of the word has narrowed significantly over the years.

In his first inaugural address, John F. Kennedy famously challenged American citizens to “ask not what your country can do for you; ask what you can do for your country.” What he had in mind was an older notion of responsibility, one in which taking responsibility was directed outward as much as inward. Responsibility, in this view, might mean serving one’s community, becoming an officer in a local voluntary association, or running for public office. It was, in short, a duty to do good works.

Today, by contrast, politicians rarely talk about our responsibility to serve some cause or entity greater than ourselves. When they invoke personal responsibility, they mean something that might also have the urgency of an obligation, and yet is unambiguously directed inward. Citizens exercise personal responsibility when they do the hard work and make the prudent choices that will ensure they have enough money to take care of their own needs. Citizens fail to exercise personal responsibility, by contrast, when they are so lazy, or make such foolish choices, that they wind up asking for collective assistance. Responsibility, in short, has become a form of accountability for our actions.

This also helps to explain the central political distinction that is now made in cases when somebody is in need of help. In theory, a whole range of questions might determine how generous a state should be toward its neediest members. How much money does the state have at its disposal? What other important goals might suffer if more money is spent on social assistance? How much suffering would the proposed spending alleviate? And are its beneficiaries likely to profit from the assistance they receive, potentially putting them in a position to better their situation or rejoin the workforce in the future?

All of these important questions are either pushed into the background or altogether eclipsed by the dominant concern about responsibility-as-accountability. Instead, the key question that now determines whether somebody should receive public assistance boils down to an inquisition into the history of their actions: whether they are in need because of their own choices or for reasons beyond their control, such as a genetic disease or a car accident. If the former, we don’t owe them anything. If the latter, we might give them a hand.

A Welfare State for the Virtuous

The same distinction between the responsible and the irresponsible also helps to resolve a longstanding debate about recent developments in the welfare state. In the late 1980s, when growth slowed, globalization increased competition, and an aging population made public pension schemes like Social Security less sustainable, many political scientists foretold a complete erosion of the welfare state. But over the course of the 1990s, it became clear that even political leaders who were openly hostile to many social entitlements had barely managed to reverse the trend. Though the growth of the welfare state slowed under the leadership of Ronald Reagan in the United States and Margaret Thatcher in Great Britain, for example, its share of the GDP continued to rise. With few exceptions, the wholesale abolition of existing entitlement programs was either never attempted or failed in the face of widespread opposition. On the whole, as Paul Pierson has put it, the “irresistible forces” that were supposed to undermine the welfare state met “immovable objects” in popular attachment to the existing programs.

As scholars like Jacob Hacker (a frequent co-author of Pierson’s) have pointed out, however, this story may be overly optimistic. Though he acknowledges that very few welfare programs were abolished wholesale, Hacker also shows that the real degree of protection against social risks was significantly curtailed over the past decades. In some cases, important forms of social assistance did not keep up with inflation, losing a large part of their real value over the years. In other cases, forms of assistance that were once meant fully to protect citizens against major life risks became supplementary. Pensions are a great example: In lieu of the comparatively generous defined benefit pensions that predominated in the postwar era, Hacker argues, most citizens now have to supplement their retirement income with private savings subsidized by tax incentive schemes like the
Roth IRA. The appearance of continuity, he thus concluded, actually concealed a lot of change.

The debate between Pierson and Hacker remained unsatisfyingly inconclusive. Looked at from the vantage point of the overall degree of social protection afforded by contemporary welfare state institutions, it is difficult to spot a clear narrative in the developments of the last decade: The welfare state hasn’t completely retrenched. But neither was it fully preserved. The changes that did take place seem to have no particular logic to them.

The welfare state has been reshaped to accord with the punitive assumptions of the age of responsibility.

Looked at from the vantage point of personal responsibility, by contrast, the pieces of the puzzle start to fall into place. Those aspects of the welfare state that were perceived to be helping people irrespective of whether they had acted responsibly suffered large cuts: Welfare became workfare; upper limits were imposed on the receipt of unemployment benefits; food stamps and other social assistance programs of last resort became less generous; state pensions were reduced. In many countries, even social assistance programs in the form of non-cash payments were made conditional on good behavior: In the United Kingdom, for example, people can now be expelled from public housing if civil magistrates find that they have repeatedly engaged in forms of “anti-social behavior” like swearing, drinking in public, or making excessive noise.

At the same time, aspects of the welfare state that were perceived to be helping those people who were in need by no fault of their own were preserved or even expanded. Social assistance programs for the disabled are one good example: Compared to other forms of cash assistance, they have proven far more resilient to recent changes. The radical expansion of the earned income tax credit—and the introduction of similar programs in many countries in Western Europe and beyond—is an even more striking example: A very generous cash transfer to some of the poorest members of society, it is by definition restricted to people who are proving their willingness to “live up to their responsibility” by participating in the workforce.

The welfare state has neither straightforwardly shrunk nor straightforwardly grown, then. Instead, it has been reshaped to accord with the punitive assumptions of the age of responsibility. And so “responsibility-buffering” programs, which help citizens regardless of their past actions, have been cut. Meanwhile, “responsibility-tracking” programs, which reward citizens for the right actions, have been expanded. In the postwar era, visionaries like T. H. Marshall, the British sociologist who built much of the intellectual groundwork for the modern welfare state, conceived of entitlements as a social safety net that would help people as a matter of right, regardless of the reasons for their misfortune. Today, we are further away from Marshall’s vision than at any point since World War II.

What’s Wrong with the Age of Responsibility

John, let us imagine, loves to climb challenging mountains. He knows that he would need to take out a special insurance to cover the costs of a possible mountain rescue. Though he could afford to do so, he declines to take out additional coverage. Do we owe him any assistance when he then injures himself and gets stranded on a remote peak?

From the point of view of personal responsibility, the answer is reasonably clear. John is responsible for putting himself in harm’s way. He himself decided to decline the necessary insurance. There can be little doubt that he is in need because of his own choices. Insofar as the responsibility framework is concerned, that seems to settle the matter: We don’t owe him our assistance. But is that all there is to it?

Seeing this situation as so black-and-white is overly simple for a number of reasons. The first and most obvious point is that we may believe that we have obligations toward John that aren’t defeated by the fact that he has acted foolishly. He was wrong to decline an affordable form of insurance that would have covered the costs of his rescue. But by the same token, we may be acting unjustly if we insist on letting him perish by the side of a mountain. Two wrongs do not always make a right. What’s more, even if we think that we don’t have an obligation of justice to come to John’s rescue—that there is no sense in which we would be flouting a strict moral obligation if we declined his desperate pleas—we may yet be moved to help him as a matter of charity. In short, it is simply less clear that the fact that someone has acted irresponsibly in the past should undermine his present entitlements than the advocates of personal responsibility insist.

A single-minded focus on personal responsibility not only blinds us to weighty moral reasons; it also makes it difficult to give important practical considerations their full due. John may have children who would suffer enormously from his death. He might have rare skills that could make a big contribution to the happiness of the community or the growth of the economy. These considerations are inaccessible to us if we only think about the way in which John’s past actions account for his present predicament.

Focusing purely on John’s moral desert thus blinds us to factors that seem important for both moral and practical reasons. Though we need not ignore the fact that he has acted foolishly in the past—indeed, this may, for example, be a perfectly legitimate consideration in determining how much of a contribution he should be required to make to cover the cost of the rescue effort—it would be both foolish and rather bizarre to focus exclusively on his one poor decision.

A similar set of conclusions emerges in the policy realm if we avoid the temptation of focusing on the individual level and start to think about aggregate outcomes instead. Around the world, government agencies tasked with helping welfare recipients back into work now spend a lot of their time assessing whether or not they are doing enough to find a job. But this may be more useful in coming to a judgment about individuals—and providing a bureaucratic justification for striking them off the welfare rolls—than in creating a true incentive for them to find employment.

In fact, a recent field experiment in England suggests that this punitive focus on responsibility may even be counterproductive. Like similar agencies elsewhere, the job centers in Loughton, Essex, have been asking applicants what they have done over the past two weeks to procure a job. In the experiment, agents were instead trained to partner with jobseekers in designing a concrete plan of action for the future. Working together, they devised specific steps the applicant would undertake in the next two weeks. The results were striking. Not only did the number of jobseekers who managed to procure employment increase significantly; interestingly, employees of the job center itself also reported much higher levels of job satisfaction. Broadening the focus of social policy from individuals’ past actions to the specific interventions that might help them take control of their lives in the future can make a real difference.

Why Denial Won’t Help

In a true society of equals, the state would tender help in a spirit of respect. In such a society, the institutions of the welfare state might be organized in such a way as to convey a message of solidarity: “I can see that you are in need of help,” an imaginary, well-meaning bureaucrat might say. “As a fellow citizen, you deserve our compassion. Hopefully, this will help you get back on your feet.”

Today, we are moving further and further away from such a society. Any offer of assistance is now conditional on an applicant’s ability to demonstrate that he needs help for reasons beyond his control. This has three perverse consequences. First, it means that anybody who seeks assistance has to undergo what Jonathan Wolff has aptly called “shameful revelation”: To prove that he did not act irresponsibly, an applicant for welfare benefits has to answer highly intrusive questions. Second, it gives rise to what Yeheskel Hasenfeld has named the “paradox of the welfare state”: Put off by the prospect of a painful interrogation, many citizens who have genuine claims to assistance will abstain from pursuing their rights. And third, even people who successfully jump through all these humiliating hoops are treated as less than equals: Having proven that there is nothing they could possibly have done to avoid needing to ask for welfare entitlements, they are condescendingly offered a form of charity reserved for those so hapless and devoid of marketable talent that no amount of effort will be enough to save them. A focus on personal responsibility turns fellow citizens with a just claim to assistance into social inferiors to whom we can, at best, extend our charity.

This goes for thinkers who locate themselves on the left end of the political spectrum nearly as much as for those who see themselves on the right. Indeed, it is striking to what extent left-wing critics of personal responsibility have failed to call the key normative premise of the contemporary discourse about responsibility into doubt. Instead of pointing out that we might owe fellow citizens assistance even when they have made bad choices, or that we need to focus on structural factors that have nothing to do with individual culpability, they have tried to shift the debate to what they considered more hospitable terrain: They began to argue that most people who find themselves in need cannot be held responsible for their fate. (This tendency has been expressed in its purest form among post-Marxist critics of capitalism like G. A. Cohen; but it is surprisingly prominent even in the thought of liberal or even left-libertarian philosophers like Philippe van Parijs.)

While egalitarian thinkers once cared about the overall distribution of goods in a society, they have increasingly come to believe that there is nothing pernicious about inequalities that flow directly from our past choices. A growing crop of so-called “luck egalitarians,” for example, believe that the very definition of justice consists in ensuring that any (and only) material differences between individuals that are due to factors outside their control be fully compensated. If you have much more than I do because of sheer good luck—for example, because you inherited a substantial amount of money from your great-aunt—then this is a manifest injustice. But if you have more money than I do because we made different choices—for example, because I squandered all of my money on climbing mountains—then this is perfectly just; even though directing additional resources to me would narrow the wealth gap between us, it would upset “true” equality.

The upshot of this way of thinking about justice and equality is that the question of what does or does not constitute a genuine choice becomes absolutely crucial. And since many left-wingers do fervently seek to preserve social programs that help the poor, they have increasingly justified their favored policies by what I call a “denial of responsibility”: Over the past decades, a lot of their philosophical and political effort has been directed toward pointing out that most people are not responsible for most of their choices. Is somebody addicted to drugs? Their genes are to blame. Is somebody out of work? Discrimination is at fault. Has somebody amassed a lot of debt? If only they had inherited more money . . .

The solution to the age of responsibility should be to reclaim it as part of a larger, positive vision.

This denial of responsibility starts from intuitive assumptions. It seems obvious, for example, that an inheritance is a matter of luck. But in trying to identify all the things that are, strictly speaking, beyond our control, the denial of responsibility quickly gets into territory that is far less intuitive. Aren’t our talents just a matter of luck? After all, it is surely beyond our control whether we are born with a high or a low IQ. And might closer inspection not reveal that some of the choices we seemingly make turn out to be the result of factors for which we cannot claim true responsibility as well? After all, the real reason why you put more effort into your business than me may be that you were raised by more hard-working parents.

Most philosophers in this tradition quickly conclude that we need radical redistribution. While they accept that we can forfeit our claim of assistance if we have made bad choices, for example, they doubt that the poor can ever be responsible for their fate. And yet, it is hardly surprising that this response to the predominance of personal responsibility has proven politically toothless. Many people are willing to concede that social advantages bestowed upon the children of the rich are unfair: If somebody is able to attend a better college or to start a business thanks to their parents’ riches, this clearly gives them an unfair advantage over children who are excluded from such opportunities. But they quickly balk when philosophers take this idea to what they consider to be its logical end point: It is, for example, unlikely that ordinary voters will ever brook the idea that we should not be allowed to profit from our propensity toward hard work simply because our parents helped to imbue that virtue in us, or that armed robbers shouldn’t be held responsible for the violent acts they commit because they had a bad childhood. If we are to overcome the pernicious consequences of a punitive focus on personal responsibility, we therefore need to challenge the current way of thinking about blame and desert in a more radical manner.

A Positive Notion of Responsibility

Responsibility does have value. In fact, a world without responsibility would be nothing short of dystopian: Because we could never think that we are taking responsibility for ourselves, it would deny us a sense of control over our own fate. Because we could never think that we are taking responsibility for others, it would leave us incapable of expressing what is so significant about the people and the projects that fill our lives with meaning. Perhaps most importantly, because we could never think of other human beings as full agents capable of responsibility for their own actions, it would ultimately leave us bereft of some of the deepest human bonds, making a mockery of the meaning of friendship and even love. So the solution to the age of responsibility cannot be to reject the idea of responsibility altogether. Instead, we need to reclaim and redefine the concept, making it part of a larger vision for how the state can empower its citizens.

Personal responsibility has shrunk to a narrow, punitive core. Figuring out just how responsibility could, instead, play a positive, multi-faceted role in our politics and society is a large undertaking. Here, I can only offer three initial pointers about the way in which a positive notion of responsibility might allow us to broaden our political imagination—and revive the original promise of the welfare state.

One of the stranger things about our current way of thinking about personal responsibility is that it turns the welfare state into a mere handmaiden for realizing an abstract notion of justice. As mentioned, the idea, roughly, is that there are those who are deserving (the responsible) and those who are undeserving (the irresponsible). The role of the welfare state is to reward the deserving and to punish the undeserving. John Rawls would have called this mode of reasoning “pre-political”: It takes a strong notion of individual desert as its starting point, and then presses political institutions into the service of making the world accord more closely with this pre-existing conception of justice.

In a first step, we should turn this reasoning on its head by adopting a “political” mode of reasoning. Instead of starting with some abstract notion of individual desert, we should begin by asking what larger political purposes our institutions serve. What were the institutions we created actually meant to accomplish? Is it the purpose of the welfare state to reduce suffering or to help the economy grow, to stabilize the political system or to create the social bases for a society of equals (or perhaps all of the above)?

Once we have an account of the values we seek to pursue as a political community, we can start to think about how to treat particular individuals in light of these commitments. The answer might not always turn out to be unambiguous, of course. But even then, one of the big advantages of this approach is that it captures the most significant considerations, allowing us to see what is really at stake in difficult situations. It allows us to see, for example, that the question of how generous we should be toward people who have made some bad choice in their lives should turn not on some extremely intricate metaphysical questions about whether or not they are truly responsible for having acted as they did—but rather on much more straightforward, and important, questions such as whether we want to prioritize avoiding unnecessary suffering or expanding the economy.

Second, this allows us a more nuanced way to think about whether to make aspects of the welfare state conditional. A positive conception of responsibility would reject the idea that we should withhold welfare benefits from people who have made bad choices in the past because their supposedly irresponsible behavior has now made them undeserving of our assistance. But, at the same time, it would recognize that our welfare state institutions are designed to serve real, important purposes—and that we should design those institutions in such a way that they can effectively pursue those goals.

Whether or not those rules should include strong forms of conditionality depends on context. A welfare state whose primary purpose it is to avert unnecessary suffering should be more circumspect about making assistance conditional than one that is mostly geared toward growing the economy. By the same token, a rich country that can easily afford some additional welfare payments has less reason to impose such rules than a poor country that needs every extra dollar to pursue equally pressing goals that might otherwise remain unachievable. This indeterminacy is as it should be: The point here is not to legislate a one-size-fits-all answer; it is to recover a vocabulary that allows us to think through the inevitable trade-offs in a way that captures the most pertinent values that are at stake.

A final insight, meanwhile, is likely to apply in virtually all contexts. Most people are keen to exercise personal responsibility. They want to have a sense of control over their fate and to care for others—to shape their own lives and to entwine it with the well-being of somebody, or something, larger than themselves. So, while a lot of the recent reforms of the welfare state have been designed on an adversary model—in which legislators seek to create strong disincentives for indolence and bureaucrats are tasked with sanctioning offenders—policymakers should embrace a collaborative one instead. The mother in Texas who must spend her time clipping job ads to prove her worthiness at an unemployment office; the Florida man who must pee in a cup to receive food stamps; the student who has to scour the grocery store in Maine to find which foods have been deemed food-stamp eligible: These individuals have ironically been stripped of their ability to be responsible adults, instead living their lives within bumpers created by legislators.

A key task of the welfare state is to empower as many people as possible to exercise real agency in the world. Legislators should therefore seek to ensure that more people gain access to the material and educational resources they need to lead a life of responsibility. Meanwhile, bureaucrats involved in administering the welfare state should reconceive of themselves as partners who can help citizens in their pursuit of shared goals.

Once upon a time, responsibility was a noble ideal. It invoked a sense of duty and a striving for meaning. It called upon people to exercise solidarity toward their fellow citizens and to entwine their fate with something larger than themselves. There is something distinctly old-fashioned about all of this: Undoubtedly, it cannot be reimported wholesale into our very different era. And yet, there is no reason why we should not be able to recover the core of its appeal. Understood in a positive manner, personal responsibility is a deeply resonant value that promises to empower the “lowly” and to reconcile us to our political world. As such, it can play an important role in revitalizing our impoverished political and institutional imagination.

Read more about individualismJobsPopulismWelfare

Yascha Mounk is a Lecturer on Government at Harvard University and a Fellow in the Political Reform Program at New America. This essay is based on The Age of Responsibility: Luck, Choice and the Welfare State, forthcoming in June 2017 with Harvard University Press. He is now at work on a book about the crisis of liberal democracy.

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