Today’s must-read blog post is by Will Wilkinson, musing on the differences between liberals and conservatives in terms of how they view personal responsibility. Here’s how he describes his own view, coming from a libertarian background:
I find all of this especially interesting because my own drift from right-leaning libertarian to libertarian-leaning liberal has a lot to do with issues around the conditions for robust agency and the role of broad socio-economic forces in establishing those conditions, or not. I’ve come to accept, for example, that diffuse cultural forces, such as racism or sexism or nationalism or intergenerational poverty, can deprive an individual of her rightful liberty without any single person doing anything to violate her basic rights. This takes me a long way toward standard liberalism. But I find that my gut nevertheless leans right on issues of personal responsibility.
I agree that many people are in dire straits and suffering for absolutely no fault of their own, and that policies ought to be in place to provide meaningful material assistance. Still, I find I want an ethos of effort and individual responsibility to prevail, and I continue to think people who chose their way into trouble need to be told exactly what Welch seems to be telling the OWS folk: we’re not going to feel too sorry for you if you made some bad decisions about taking out mortgages and/or student loans, even if everybody you knew was making them too.
And here’s where he breaks ranks with progressives:
Progressives are sincerely inclined to impersonal, socio-cultural explanations of success and failure, but I think they’re also generally of the opinion that an ethos of initiative, hard work, and individual responsibility will impede the political will to offer assistance to those who ought to get it. I’m not sure that they’re wrong. After all, those who tend to oppose progressive transfers tend to do so partly on the basis of their disbelief in the faultlessness of the needy.
Here’s what I think most conservatives and libertarians fail to understand about liberals. On one hand, we have political philosophy and on the other we have personal philosophy, and they are not the same. I’ve been saying since 2004 that liberals are values voters just like conservatives, it’s just that our values are different.
The sentiments he ascribes to progressives do capture our political philosophy quite well, but not our personal philosophy. I see myself as an agent who has great influence over his own fate, and hold myself responsible for the poor decisions I have made. And when it comes to friends and family members I feel the same way. It would be nice if nobody I knew were without health insurance, but my advice to those who are is to find a way to get a job that provides health insurance. Or to save money they spend on other things and buy individual health insurance instead. My advice to people who can’t afford to pay their bills is to look harder for a job, to acquire new skills, and to cut expenses. At the individual level, the ethos of personal responsibility is the only one that makes sense.
Regardless of what I (or progressives) think the government should do, the truth is that waiting for someone else to bail you out is obviously a non-starter as a personal strategy. As a voter and an activist, my goal is to see the government do more to help people who are victims of the current downturn and of long term economic trends. But at the personal level, my goal is to encourage people to do more to take care of themselves.
Among the people I know, differences in political philosophy do not translate to large differences in personal behavior. Liberals tend to be just as frugal, industrious, and responsible as the conservatives. They also tend to hold themselves to the same moral standards. The idea that a progressive political philosophy translates to a hedonistic personal philosophy is simply incorrect, and I think that most anyone who knows any actual liberals would agree.