This part of the series is likely going to get lots of blowback, but, in my opinion, that just means it’s a good topic to question. Simply put, libertarians need to drop the personal responsibility angle from our rhetoric, or at the very least, better explain what one means by it.
With roots in classical liberalism and the later neo-liberalism, libertarians have adopted much of their core philosophies including the idea of pulling yourself up from your bootstraps and being accountable for your own actions. What is problematic is that the counter-arguments and explanations I often see come across as cold and unsympathetic.
The impression given when one claims that welfare makes people dependent or how most of people’s issued could be solved by an attitude change is that libertarians have no ability to see where others may have been influenced by outside forces or had their choices restricted. Boston College Professor Kent Greenfield believes that chalking up every consequence as being because of one’s own actions avoids the part that other people or institutions might play in any situation.
“Choice is limited in all kinds of ways. Humans are limited by brain science, habit, authority, culture, and the so-called “free” market, which restricts as much as it empowers,” explains Greenfield who continues by using an example of a suicidal teenager to explain his view.
In 1994, A Maryland middle schooler made a suicide pact with her friend which when reported to the school, they denied. A week later they shot themselves in a local park. The teen’s father proceeded to sue the school for not informing him of the pact after speaking with his child.
“Who was responsible for Nicole’s death?” inquired Greenfield explaining “If we take a simplistic view of personal responsibility, then the answer is simple: Nicole. She could have avoided death by not entering into the pact. We might also put her parents on the list–they are, by definition, responsible for the safety of their minor children. And let’s not forget the girl who pulled the trigger.
“Was Nicole’s school also responsible? Nicole’s father thought so. He sued the school, alleging that officials failed to warn him. The school’s defense was that Nicole’s suicide was a ‘deliberate, intentional, and intervening act.’”
Two debaters could argue in circles for hours over whether it was the teenager’s choice to end her life or whether the school is responsible for not initiating a chain of events that could have resulted in an intervention getting her some therapeutic assistance. The personal responsibility vs. welfare argument is really a debate between free will and determinism, the idea that one’s choices are caused by entirely external factors. More conservative-leaning pundits think all actions are the results of choices people made, while liberal type people tend to believe in deterministic institutions such as the patriarchy, institutional racism, and colonialism cause people to make their decisions.
I would argue that libertarians aren’t necessarily stating that all of one’s decisions fall upon their shoulders, but that without government people would need to take care of each other and would probably do it better because there is less of a disconnect. This is very different than the personal responsibility jargon as that means that libertarians, in part, are accounting for an external force influencing choices currently and thus, requires a different philosophy to be adopted: compatibilism.
A combination of the beliefs of free will and determinism, compatibilism is more in line with libertarian thinking due to its ability to encourage accountability but also understanding sometimes events beyond one’s control do have a major impact. For example, a compatibilist recognizes that choosing a hot dog for lunch demonstrates free will, for one could have picked something else to eat, but that there are also a few deterministic factors, for the human body drives one to eat when they are hungry regardless of the desire to otherwise.
In the instance of the Maryland teen, she did make the decision to shoot herself, but there could have been a mental disorder beyond her control that was making her depressed or crave self-harm, and the school could have potentially prevented the death by informing her parents. Compatibilism allows an understanding of the range of choice and places all free will on a sort of sliding scale of differing degrees of freedom.
What makes compatibilism in tune with libertarianism is that it can be a tool to measure how truly free someone is based on their ability to choose. The movement is already concerned that people don’t have enough freedom of choice and adopting a philosophy that accounts for all factors allows for more mature discourse that goes beyond government limitations.
A business can also be a source of limiting freedom and libertarians, if their dedication to maximum freedom for all be true, should protest this just as much as government interference. Most people would probably claim that one should drink 8 glasses of water a day to stay healthy, but this is a myth propagated by drink companies. In 2002, Gatorade published an ad in Runner’s World pretending to be an article on “Hydration 101” encouraging people to drink “early and often” and “more than you think” something accepted as common knowledge nowadays.
Sure, it could be argued that these people shouldn’t have fallen for an ad or researched more, but this isn’t the only example of a business changing common knowledge because of advertisements and essentially altering the culture. Once something is considered common knowledge, it’s difficult for a person to reject that information, and therefore is a factor in their choices. Libertarians should reject these business practices wholeheartedly.
Perhaps then, the personal responsibility rhetoric is not entirely appropriate for the liberty movement because of its narrow view on choice and not being a great match for libertarian ideas. Community building, charity, and recognition of external forces on freedom would be more compassionate focuses and begin to steer the image of the grouchy, insensitive libertarian away from reality.
You can read more from Luke Henderson on Think Liberty here.