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Monday, August 13, 2012

Am I responsible for you?

Yes and no.

Start with no. You are your own person. If I take responsibility for you, I take away your freedom, your dignity as a person. Woe to the "nanny state"! To food stamps, emergency aid, health insurance, social security, low income housing programs, regulation of commerce and harmful substances, welfare as we know it. These practices foster the game playing of dependency that in turn leads to addiction beyond personal initiative. The true left has always agreed with the true right on this: government aid programs can lead willy-nilly to the loss of individual freedom and responsibility and control by Leviathan.

But yes. We are social animals within expanding waves of relationships. I am who I am because of you, all of you, past, present, and future.  The language and other tools I use to advance myself are social products, i.e. from you. The neighborhood and nation I enjoy are you. There is nothing I can do or be without your contributions whether you realize them or not. When I see you drowning and say or do nothing, I am shirking my responsibility. When I see an institution holding you back, when I find out about a practice that has diminished your opportunity for growth, when I hear about conditions that hasten your demise and I say and do nothing, I am reducing my ability to respond. Conservatives and liberals have always known this when they use accountable government to advance social justice.

Why respond to my neighbor, why take responsibility for my community? Because the ability to respond is the essence of human freedom and power. When we diminish our ability to respond by willful ignorance or neglect, we diminish our freedom and power which can only accrue to persons collectively. The teaching on subsidiarity in which an action or a solution should be exercised at the most appropriate and closest level is not the social darwinism of individualistic survival and society be left to fend for itself.

So maybe the best answer to our question is: No, I am not responsible for you. But, yes, I am responsible to you. Only you can change your thinking and behavior.  Only I can change mine. I can with you, however, change the circumstances of our common life.

Here then is the ethical-political choice. It is not left or right, liberal or conservative, republican or democrat per se. It is the recognition that the individual and society cannot be separated. It is the responsible use of accountable government to foster personal and social freedom and power for all especially those who have been left behind whatever label we put on that in the here and now.

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