Wednesday, May 25, 2005

Responsibility - Part 1

Lets talk about responsibility for a few minutes. But first, lets define it:

Responsibility: n 1: the social force that binds you to your obligations and the courses of action demanded by that force; "we must instill a sense of duty in our children"; "every right implies a responsibility; every opportunity, an obligation; every possession, a duty"- John D. Rockefeller Jr, 2: the proper sphere or extent of your activities; "it was his province to take care of himself" [syn: province] 3: a form of trustworthiness; the trait of being answerable to someone for something or being responsible for one's conduct; "he holds a position of great responsibility" [syn: responsibleness] [ant: irresponsibility]

A social force that binds us to our obligations. Let’s explore that for a minute, then look at it in the light of recent news. Clayton Cramer links us to this article in the New York Times, which reports a new housing development specifically designed for grandparents that are raising grandchildren. If a person has children, then that person assumes a responsibility to raise those children. However, this project in New York codifies in stone what many of us have suspected all along; that some people have no innate responsibility to take care of their young. I suspect that responsibility is not an innate condition of the human animal. I know that I, and I assume that many of you, daydream occasionally about not having any responsibilities.

If responsibility is a social force, then perhaps we don’t have it innately.
Perhaps responsibility is taught and learned. I know that I learned responsibility from my parents. I learned that with great freedom comes a duty to the society from whence I exercise that freedom. I learned that the family is the basic building block of society. I learned that I shouldn’t expect anyone to take care of me, but that I was responsible for taking care of my siblings. My siblings learned the same thing; that they were responsible for me, yet couldn’t claim that I was responsible for them.

That is a great lesson. That I am responsible for my family, but my siblings aren’t responsible for me. My siblings learned the same lessons, which seems on the face to be a conundrum, but is really simple when examined. Responsibility is individual. We are each responsible for our own actions. I am also responsible for doing my part to uphold the honor and dignity of my family. If I bring a child into this world, I am responsible for it.

So there it is. Responsibility is individual. Either you are responsible or you are not. Yet responsibility is a social force. If responsibility is a social force, then we should expect society to wield that force. To force individuals to assume responsibility, and to exact a price if they don’t. Yet we don’t see society forcing anyone to assume responsibility. And here, I am not talking about the government. I am talking about you and I. I am talking about our neighbors and coworkers and the lady down the street. I am talking about us.

I’m not a trained sociologist and I fear that I have wandered off into the realm of sociology. Thomas Edison wasn’t a trained electrician, either, but he invented the light bulb. Let’s plow ahead and see what comes of it.

As I recall, there was a time in my lifetime when society forced individuals to accept responsibility for their actions. If a person became a parent without benefit of wedlock, that person was ostracized. If a person was unable to support himself, there were programs available, but there was a social cost. The family was shamed. The children were taunted, the parents were talked about, the whole family felt the force of society.

Somehow, the Great Society and the Sexual Revolution of the sixties changed all that. Suddenly, there was an expanded government safety net and families were still at risk, but not from starvation. Girls still got pregnant but were allowed to continue in school. Men were not expected to work, but could claim benefit from the government. The all-powerful government would provide the basic necessities without many prerequisites.

Somehow, sometime, we got the idea that the business of government was to provide for the unfortunate, the lazy, the unlucky. Somehow, we got to the idea that people were entitled to help from the government.

I’m reminded of a story, probably apocryphal, that I heard a long time ago about Davy Crockett’s stint in the US Congress. It seems that there was a widow of the war of 1812. Her husband had served honorably in the military with some distinction yet when he died, the woman was left in dire and necessitous circumstances. A bill was introduced to give her a small pension as thanks for her husband’s service. Crockett voted in favor of the bill. When Davy got back to his district, the voters there excoriated him. They believed that Congress had overstepped their bounds and were incensed that monies had been appropriated for a single person. No matter that the cause was just. No matter that the pension was small. No matter that the government could easily assume the small debt. The voters told Crockett that public monies were not to be used for personal expenses under any circumstances. They had sent him to Congress to take care of their interests, not the interest of some woman. What he had done was outside the scope of the Constitution.

As I get older, I tend to think along the lines of the apocryphal voters in Crockett’s district. I have spent my life taking care of others. I have spent my life taking care of my family. I haven’t asked the Congress for a darned thing. Further, I think that Congress has overstepped its bounds repeatedly in the last century, and exponentially continued to take on responsibilities that are solely the responsibility of individual citizens.

How, you ask? Lets continue this later.

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