Tuesday, April 25, 2006

All Those in Favor of Personal Responsibility, Raise Your Invisible Hand

Over at Mad Melancholic Feminista, my fairy blog mother Aspazia has an amazing post about health care, women, and class. It is well worth a read. As a good philosopher, I will respond by completely ignoring the point of her discussion and taking off on a complete throw away line she tosses in. She makes a reference to the "personal responsibility crowd" and I responded with a half-cryptic comment that I think deserves to be filled out.

The idea is that when conservatives use the phrase "personal responsibility" they don't mean personal responsibility. It is dog whistle politics. It means something else, it is a code word that they understand. What they are really saying when they use the phrase "personal responsibility" is that all sociological factors must be ignored in policy discussions. Any social forces that produce predictable regularities in a given population are sheer accidents. The only thing you look at when explaining why someone acted the way they did is personal choice. "Personal responsibility" is meant to convey to the listener that agents are fully and completly culpable for their actions because there are no external influences to be discussed.

The politics of personal responsibility is a reaction. Sociology was founded in the 19th century by people who were trying to expand the fields of psychology and economics -- which themselves were still well in the early phases of being treated scientifically. Physics envy among those interested in looking at people-related phenomena led them to model the human sciences on Newtonian physics. In the 18th century, Newton's gravitational action at a distance would be taken over as Smith's invisible hand. Just as physical forces guided a planet in its orbit, so economic forces would guide rational people in their fiscal dealings. In the 19th century, this would be expanded beyond labor/currency questions to social properties more generally. We can observe, put forward hypotheses, and test statistical regularities in the same inductive way and expect there to be invisible social forces that guide things like class, education, unemployment, criminality,...

The founding fathers of sociology were not disinterested students, but were social reformers as well. They wanted to know how society worked so that they could help improve it. Since those early days, the left has been fascinated with the ways in which social forces play into social ills and the ways in which that structure could be remolded to make it more equitable. The idea of social progress through social engineering (back when that wasn't a dirty phrase) has remained a hallmark of the approach to society's problems from the left.

In the US, this hit its zenith during the civil rights movement. It was undeniable that American society was set in a way to at least disadvantage, at most completely disenfranchise a subpopulation. The social structure was clearly unfair and for justice to be done, the structure itself needed changing. The left succeeded to such a degree that even Elvis was singing "In the Ghetto." LBJ's "Great Society" promised/threatened to be a new "New Deal." White guilt allowed for progress in rehemming the American social fabric.

But white guilt has a short shelf life. In the Reagan 80's, it lost its potency amongst those in the middle and Reagan played this like a virtuoso. Personal responsibility became a buzzword that meant, "Sociology does not exist. The structure of society is irrelevant. We are not making anymore changes. Don't even look to see if there are advantages and disadvantages. They do not exist. We are not listening. Lalalalalalalala. I can't hear you. Oh, say, can you see..." It was a full on backlash against addressing social ills by changing sociological factors. You are to look at the individual and that is all. Nothing else matters. People are not pre-disposed by their circumstances, they act in complete freedom. (Yeah, there's something like this on the left of the early 20th century amongst the existentialists). They make this move, of course, because reshaping society means social programs which are tax funded.

Have some on the left taken it too far and downplayed the agency of the individual? Sure, but by in large most on the left are more than happy to say that individuals bear some responsibility for their actions. Liberals do not deny that people are responsible for their actions, but just because people bear some responsibility does not mean that society as a whole does not bear some as well. If my brother and I hold up a 7-11, I am not innocent because he is guilty. But if this is true, then we are responsible for helping bring about the changes needed to make these sorts of things less likely. And that may mean surrendering some unearned privileges. And this is exactly what those pushing the personal responsibility line do not even want on the table.

The irony, of course, is that these privileges are the bouncing baby boy of Adam Smith's invisible hand. The market forces to which those folks defer at every step were simply extended beyond the economy. But when the move was seen as disadvantageous, they simply refused to say, "Like father, like son."