The concept of personal responsibility has taken a battering lately. People are quite happy to blame anyone and anything other than themselves for their behaviour and actions. We are happy to pass the buck and shift the blame instead of taking ownership of what we do.
Some years ago social commentator Ben Wattenberg wrote that Americans have an obsession with what he called “The Victim Dictum” which states that “Every Problem Can Be Assigned To a Hostile Outside Agent”. Finding someone or something else to blame for your crimes and misdemeanours always beats taking personal responsibility for them.
It goes without saying that no society can long last when most people no longer regard themselves as responsible for anything. Indeed, when most people expect that they are entitled to all sorts of things, and that a nanny state should continuously and instantly cater for all these entitlements, then the rot has well and truly set in.
Consider a recent government announcement in this regard. The Federal Government is considering paying people to lose weight. In the interests of tackling the national obesity problem, tax breaks or subsidies might be paid to overweight Australians. These could be used for such things as gym memberships and sporting equipment.
Now this is not altogether amiss. Governments of course use financial rewards and penalties as incentives all the time, and sometimes there is a place for them. The carrot and stick approach certainly can achieve results. Indeed, it is a truism that whatever the government taxes, it tends to get less of, and whatever the government subsidises, it tends to get more of.
Thus governments can seek to regulate behaviour and activities by applying these financial rewards and punishments. For example, to reduce cigarette smoking, government affix huge taxes to tobacco products. And to encourage green activities, government subsidise the purchase of things like water tanks or solar panels.
Given that obesity is a national medical problem, there is a place for government incentives to reduce overeating. But the concern is that more and more nanny state actions will simply reduce personal responsibility.
As governments take ever more interest and involvement in our day to day lives, it becomes all too easy for people to expect the government to do it all. And in an age of rights talk, the idea of government entitlements, coupled with the increasing reach of the welfare state, is producing a docile population in which the state is expected to do everything.
The question is, is there any end to the growth of the nanny state? While government subsidies may help us in our weight loss regimes, how about an emphasis on personal responsibility? How about letting people know that they are actually responsible for all sort of activities and behaviours, and that it is not the government’s business to get involved in the minutiae of personal behaviour?
But ultimately this must come from within. Indeed, at the end of the day there are only two major motivations for ethical behaviour: cops and conscience. When we are inner-directed, motivated by the courage of our convictions, responding to the inner moral light, then we don’t need a nanny state continually looking over our shoulders.
Malcolm Muggeridge once remarked, “The great fallacy of our time is the one that says we may pursue collective virtue apart from personal behavior.” Nations are great only when individual citizens are great. And that greatness depends on character, virtue and taking responsibility for one’s actions.
Edited from an article by Bill Muehlenberg’s Culture Watch – 26 June 2009
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