“Responsibility”… for What?

GrindstoneYesterday I was listening to NPR and the author of a biography of Margaret Thatcher was being interviewed.  He was clearly a great admirer of his subject. Asked what “Thatcherism” was he said, and I’m paraphrasing, Thatcherism was not a political philosophy, it was a way of thinking.  Thatcher, he said, stood for “responsibility.”

I was thinking about this and it occurred to me that this is not a completed concept.  You can’t stand for “responsibility” you have to finish the sentence.  Responsibility to what?

I got to thinking about classical literature and all of those tales about duty and honor.  I thought of something David Denby wrote about the Iliad in Great Books, “Accepting death in battle as inevitable, the Greek and Trojan aristocrats of the Iliad experience the world not as pleasant or unpleasant, not as good and evil, but as glorious or shameful.”

This is responsibility to your city-state, your people.  This military tradition of responsibility continues. It is an ethic of placing the good of the whole above your own personal needs.  Being willing to sacrifice even your life in defense of your society.

Religion presents another model of responsibility– responsibility to God, a commitment to living in accordance with eternal values even when this is personally difficult.  Ideally, religion is a model of people putting aside their own personal concerns and focusing on something larger than themselves and vowing commitment to treat other human beings with compassion.  Responsibility to God and fellow man.

Using the world “responsibility” without saying “to what” calls these types of commitments to mind.  It calls to mind the responsibility of a parent to child.

Yet when I think of Thatcher and Reagan it is a different kind of “responsibility” that comes to mind.  This is often phrased as “personal responsibility.”  It means that each person should take control of his own life, pull himself up by his bootstraps and make his own way. As the name suggests “personal responsibility” is actually a limiting of responsibility from society as a whole to one person.  I am responsible for myself, you are responsible for yourself.

In truth, there is no such thing as pure independence only interdependence.  The “trickle down” economic model implies that the business owner creates the jobs, but it is equally true that the workers make the business possible.

In Status Anxiety, Alain de Botton writes,.  “…for centuries, economic orthodoxy held that it was the working classes that generated society’s financial resources– which the rich then dissipated through their taste for extravagance and luxury.”

He traces the end of the view of wealth coming from the laborers as beginning in spring 1723 when a London physician named Bernard Mandeville published The Fable of the Bees.  Its premise, now very familiar, was that the wealthy by spending, allowed those who they paid to survive.  Wealth in this model is seen as flowing down from the top (trickle down economics) rather than growing up from the ground.

I have been reading lately about British aristocratic society in its period of decline at the end of the 19th Century and the beginning of the 20th.  As aristocrats saw their position being challenged, many of them made passionate defenses of the hierarchy  that placed them at the top.  Many of the arguments they made came right out of the Fable of the Bees.  Titled aristocracy was necessary because by living their lives of luxury and power they provided work for those who worked for them.

Indeed, the aristocrats felt that this was a duty, a responsibility.  Society put them at the top and they had the responsibility to remain there in order to take care of those less fortunate.  Someone once wrote “Power justified itself by pointing to powerlessness in others as proof of incapacity.”  The poor needed to be cared for by the compassionate rich.

The notion of “personal responsibility” grew in the era of the “self-made man” but it had a slightly different meaning back then.  It meant,  “Don’t worry Lord Such-and-Such, I can take care of myself quite well, thank you very much. Your lordship doesn’t need to maintain that manor house on my account.”

Pulling yourself up by your bootstraps is empowering when it means you have the opportunity to break out of rigid social hierarchies.  It is less empowering when it is used to explain why your boss does not have any responsibility to you.  “It is my responsibility to reduce costs and make the largest profits possible so that I can do my duty and create jobs.  It is not my responsibility to ensure that those jobs have living wages.”

A quote by Upton Sinclair comes to mind:

“…the priests of all these cults, the singers, shouters, prayers and exhorters of Bootstrap-lifting have as their distinguishing characteristic that they do very little lifting at their own bootstraps, and less at any other man’s. Now and then you may see one bend and give a delicate tug, of a purely symbolical character.. But for the most part the priests and preachers of Bootstrap-lifting walk haughtily erect, many of them being so swollen with prosperity that they could not reach their bootstraps if they wanted to. Their role in life is to exhort other men to more vigorous efforts at self-elevation…”

I read an interesting article yesterday on Work in Progress, the blog of the American Sociological Association’s Organizations, Occupations and Work section.  The article argues that as a greater share of national income has gone to profits rather than wages it has slowed GDP growth.

As Özlem Onaran explained in her summary of her ILO study, “mainstream economics continues to guide policy towards further wage moderation and austerity as the main response to the Great Recession. Mainstream economists and policymakers treat wages merely as a cost item. However, in reality wages have a dual role affecting not just costs but also demand.”

We can’t escape the fact that we are all in this together.   It is a world of interdependence, and mutual responsibility.



The image above is from the 1934 book “Wasn’t The Depression Terrible?” by O. Soglow.  It’s in the public domain and you can read it on line.  Many of the cartoons seem quite contemporary.


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