The paradox of “personal responsibility”

Rightwingers among us tend to cite as one of their core values "personal responsibility" – this being their major argument against welfare systems of any kind. The truth however is that this is argument is filled with a critical paradox that invalidates it completely.

Now it's worth remembering that most rightwingers also oppose labour law of any kind – their belief being that all labour contracts are signed freely and therefore exploitation is in fact impossible. It's your own responsibility to negotiate a fair labour contract for yourself.

So far, even if you don't agree, this is a sensible and at least logical position. What they tend not to mention is: children. The very first labour laws the world ever passed was a ban on child-labour. This was not an arbitrary decision. In the United Kingdom prior to the passing of the anti-child-labour bills during the height of the 19th century industrial revolution nine out of ten children died before the age of ten, and almost all of them from deaths caused directly by the labour they were doing. From industrial accidents to simple overwork (which for a growing body which needs most of it's food consumption to grow new cells is a much greater risk than for an adult). The ban on child-labour was not intended to stop kids doing chores, having paper-runs or anything like that- and indeed all these things are alive and well in the world today. Child-actors make a fortune, but there are strict controls about how much they are allowed to work to avoid these problems and most general labour is completely restricted to anybody below a certain age (in South Africa that age is 15).

Indeed it's a fundamental principle of the law that a child is not capable of taking full responsibility for their actions. This is why a minor cannot sign a legally binding contract. This is why we have age-of-consent laws around sex. Because personal responsibility is held to be impossible for a child.

Now most (not all but at least most) right-wingers would actually agree up to here (indeed they also tend to be at the forefront of legislation around this – such as calls for increased censorship of children), but it causes a massive problem for the 'personal responsibility' concept.

Why is this ? Because a child is not capable of taking personal responsibility, the responsibility must instead be devolved onto others. Generally this is their parents, or other legal guardians. Unfortunately it is also a fact that a large number of parents and guardians are incapable or unable to fulfil this responsibility. From mildly understandable and forgiveable things like health problems (including severe mental health problems), severe poverty or addictions to more terrifying ones like abuse and cruelty – bad parenting is a disturbingly common problem.

A direct result of this is the street children problem so prevalent in many places (particularly here in South Africa). Now since society has declared that children cannot take personal responsibility – and indeed have legally constrained them from even attempting to do so (in order to prevent exploitation) these children are now a logical problem. Those who should be responsible for them aren't. They cannot take personal responsibility. 

The only logical conclusion is that society as a whole removed their capacity for responsibility, therefore society as a whole have adopted that responsibility. We are all responsible for all the children. We are, each of us, personally responsible for every street child out there. What we don't do for them – is a as bad as what their parents didn't do. Anything else is a massive logical flaw.

The moment you say and acknowledge that however, you are left with a problem. Can private charity alone handle this issue?  The answer is clearly "no". At no point in history has private charity been able to deal with the problem of abandoned children – there are simply too many, needing too much correlated and agreed-upon action. The only system that has shown any ability to deal with the problem has been institutionalized welfare, which can provide the kind of overarching and correlated activity required here.

So the only logical way we can see abandoned children is as our responsibility. The only logical way we can fulfil that responsibility is through institutionalized welfare – and the moment you accept that, then you have to accept that often the best way to address that responsibility is to assist parents who would be doing it well themselves but simply lack the means. So right there, you've come to the conclusion that welfare for adults is, at least sometimes, the only way of dealing with the people who are not CAPABLE of taking personal responsibility. 

Now note that I never said STATE welfare, merely institutional welfare. In a republican democracy like South Africa that would be a state-function, but institutionalized welfare systems also exist in anarchic philosophies. 

In the end though – the concept of personal responsibility instead  of welfare is logically unsupported, indeed creates a paradox. Ironically despite what the rightwingers claim liberals ALSO believe in personal responsibility, but they extend it. Right-wingers believe in taking personal responsibility for yourself. Liberals believe in taking personal responsibility for yourself AND FOR OTHER PEOPLE.

This does not negate their responsibility to themselves, it merely extends it with your responsibility toward them, and extends your personal responsibility for yourself with others also taking responsibility. This becomes the social safety net. The difference between solitary animals and social animals (and humans are decidedly a social animal).

Even if you don't agree with, or even like, the liberal idea that you are your brother's keeper (which rather makes right-wing ideology utterly incompatible with the ideals of Christianity – the overwhelming religion among right-wing people) you cannot get around the fact that the right wing idea of personal-responsibility in isolation is a logical paradox that is completely unsupportable by any rational standard. 

Until and unless they can come up with a new system – that addresses the problem in their logic – only the liberals can claim to at least make sense.