The first thing you notice about the newly popular phrase “personal responsibility” is that it is spoken almost exclusively by members of the upper-middle class or above. Good judgment, these people assume, is an entirely exogenous trait, unaffected by such factors as education (lower and higher), family income, or adult example. The poor, they insist, lack inner, not outer, resources.
Every reasonably intelligent suburban teenager eventually reflects on the vast discrepancy between what she has and what others—the poor, the working class, the homeless—lack. Some respond to this moment of dissonance by rejecting their station in life entirely and immersing themselves in leftist movements. Others embrace liberalism, religious or secular, silently promising some day to give back at least part of what they and their family have taken. Still others opt for denial, ignoring those in need, avoiding them when possible, stepping around them when not.
The most disturbing response, however, comes from those who stare into the face of injustice and conclude that they are simply better people than those who suffer, serve time, or sleep on sewer grates. Life, they believe, is all about good and bad choices, and those who choose poorly, for whatever reason, are unworthy of respect, much less financial assistance. Some salve their conscience by dumping a few coins in the Salvation Army dish each December, and tell us, against centuries of evidence to the contrary, that private charity is sufficient to make the unfortunate whole.
The most political of these people become libertarians, who—and this must astound historians—have convinced themselves that the early 20th Century was America’s Golden Age, a time before FDR and LBJ made us weak and passive. Mister, we could use a man like Herbert Hoover again, or perhaps Calvin Coolidge. The New Deal made us flaccid and the Great Society rendered us wards of the state. The natural flow of wealth, away from the irresponsible and toward the responsible, was reversed, and with that reversal, freedom gave way to the soft tyranny of the nanny state.
Libertarianism is, to be sure, a seductive philosophy. Not only does it endow its adherents with a sense of unearned superiority, it also lays a moral foundation for basic, childlike selfishness. It’s not that I want to see the unemployed live in refrigerator boxes; it’s that my handout will only encourage their natural laziness. It’s not that I want grandparents to subsist on Purina Cat Chow; it’s that Social Security incentivizes irresponsible financial decisions and deprives society’s producers of the opportunity to maximize their own retirement income. Greed, for lack of a better word, is good. In fact, it’s not even greed.
To the libertarian, the only public goods are civil and national defense, and the only services for which he can reasonably be taxed are those provided by men (or women) in uniform. This, of course, begs numerous questions, not the least of which is how we determine the level at which minimal military and policing needs are met, since any taxpayer money spent above that amount is theft. And the problem with that calculation is that we never truly know the answer until the system fails (the country is attacked, the crime rate rises). So, already, the libertarian dream is a shambles, as defense contractors and police benevolent associations persuade the necessarily ignorant that additional dollars are all that stands between them and violent death.
But beyond that, if it is the government’s sole responsibility to protect us from external harm, then why is it OK for you to tax me to protect you against the rapacious criminal, but not OK for me to tax you to protect me from the rapacious corporation? If the criminal shoots you, you are dead. If the corporation poisons my air and water, so am I, though the link between cause and effect may not be immediate. The ability of my heirs to sue the corporation in that case will do little to compensate me for my rather total loss.
And this is where libertarianism goes off the rails entirely. Even if I—or my heirs—wanted to sue the corporation for poisoning our air and water, we lack the information to press, much less prove, our claim. Absent government mandate, the factory owner has no incentive to provide evidence of her own wrongdoing. Likewise, the coal mine operator can hardly be expected to inform his employees that little provision has been made to guard against a cave-in. Individually, we are powerless to compel information from those who would rationally conceal it. Collectively, however, we can force disclosure and regulate misbehavior. Government is the mechanism which allows us to do this, and only through compulsory taxation can we assure that everyone pays their share. In that sense, the justification for taxpayer support of health and safety regulation is exactly identical to the justification for taxpayer support of the Marine Corps.
So what about health care? Untreated disease is a far more prolific killer than Charles Manson, harvesting more lives prematurely than all the gangsters, hit men, and foreign invaders combined. On the other hand, there is no collective action problem here. Unlike the polluting factory or the terrorist, I can do things to protect my health with no help from you. I can purchase insurance, and if you fail to do so, I will live and you will die. There is, in short, an undeniable element of choice here, and those who make the right choice may find themselves unwilling to subsidize those who make bad lifestyle decisions involving cigarettes or bacon or cheap wine.
There are two problems here, only one of which can be dismissed simply by resorting to vicious Social Darwinism. True, we can close the public hospitals and allow the uninsured—and their children—to die on the street. (Yes, they could seek out charity hospitals, but in a libertarian world without Medicare or public subsidy, those charity hospitals would be few and far between, financially bereft, understaffed, and inadequate. Think homeless shelters during blizzards.) But we must also turn our backs on the working poor whose lives combine copious levels of both personal responsibility and bad luck. I’ve got mine, Jack. Sorry that neither of your two low-wage jobs provides medical coverage. Next time around, make sure you select parents who will send you to college. (Much of textbook libertarianism brings to mind Jim Hightower's defining crack about the first President Bush, that he was born on third base and thinks he hit a triple.)
This is where we separate the true libertarians from the wannabes, those who memorized John Galt’s speech in Atlas Shrugged from those who read the Cliff Notes version. It takes a special kind of person to experience no tug at the thought of sick, homeless children wasting away in an unforgiving winter. Fortunately, few of our fellow citizens are quite that special. So our taxes just went up again and the nanny state has seeped in through the tears in our conscience.
But even for those individuals who truly divide the world between producers and parasites, a new collective action problem presents itself. Communicable diseases enjoy upward class mobility even when their initial carriers do not. Untreated cases of tuberculosis, whooping cough, or even exotic strains of the flu pass unmolested into both trailer parks and gated communities. If you catch the wrong bug, all of your personally responsible preparations may be inadequate. This, as much as human decency, is why hospital emergency rooms are made available to those who cannot pay, even though that fact raises both taxes and health care costs (and thus insurance premiums).
In the end, of course, nearly all libertarians are hypocrites of a sort. Few turn down Medicare, either for themselves or their parents. Many went to public schools or state universities. All of them drive the interstates, though one could, I suppose, make a rational argument that if they're forced to pay for something, they might as well use it. Instead, the deeper hypocrisy involves the notion that they somehow get to decide which public services are vital and are thus subject to taxation, and which are not. Why, for example, should the working class single mother be required to help subsidize an airport security system that she will rarely, if ever, use? Why am I not free to determine that, say, we don't need a Border Patrol? (And don't get me started on the Tea Party libertarians who wail incessantly about immigration. The difference between legal and illegal immigrants, after all, is simply the will of one group of people enforced against another by the power of the state. By what definition of universal human freedom does a government prevent, at gunpoint, the movement of labor between Tijuana and San Diego? Your home is your personal property; California is not.)
There are, to be sure, hardcore adherents to the philosophy who argue for a fully stateless society. Their nirvana is a system in which all power relationships are voluntary and we hire our own private security and enforce tort judgments through voluntary private organizations such as insurance companies. Nobody lives like this, of course, or they would likely find that their Randian paradise mostly resembles the Hobbesian state of nature in which "life is nasty, brutish, and short". What would our John Galts do, for example, when I direct my private agents to evict them from their property, especially if my army is larger than theirs?
In the end, of course, libertarians are not exactly wrong about embracing the notion of personal responsibility. Personal responsibility is a good thing, and more people ought to try it. What they are wrong about is the possibility of having a successful, livable society in which all irresponsibilities are punished mercilessly. We can generally assume that the very first collective experiments formed because people realized it was impossible to live a purely libertarian lifestyle and maintain a safe, civilized society. This is what Churchill meant when he said that democracy is the worst form of government except for all the others.
Libertarianism is doomed to failure because libertarians are simply wrong about humanity. We are a flawed, impulsive, not-fully-rational race that makes errors in abundance. Their ability to escape unscathed from their own missteps is nearly always a function of their class status and societal connections. They are swaddled in privilege and mistake that protective coating for layers of character.
Reasonable people can certainly argue about just how much taxation should be imposed, and what degree of irresponsible behavior we should choose to subsidize. But anyone who simply passes off every incorrect decision as a character flaw, and every flawed character as a parasite, is fooling himself every morning that he looks in the mirror. And until he stops doing so, he should not be entrusted with any position of public responsibility.