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I applaud Mike Konczal’s effort to show that the plight of homeowners in the wake of the housing meltdown is largely due to factors beyond their control. If such efforts succeed in blunting the rhetoric of personal responsibility and personal blame that dominates the public square these days, so much the better. But I fear this is an argument that cannot be won, at least in the short run.
Philosophers have been debating the meaning of personal responsibility for 40 years and are no closer to agreement than when they started. This is hardly surprising, given that almost any bad outcome can be ascribed to bad choices somewhere along the line. Sure, a medical emergency put you in debt up to your eyeballs, but even if you could not have prevented the emergency, you could have prevented the financial catastrophe that followed by having purchased medical insurance. Sure, your mortgage is underwater because the housing sector collapsed, but that was the risk you accepted when you took out a large mortgage.
In short, the possibility of bad luck can always be subsumed into a rational choice model, leaving us with no one to blame but ourselves if we fail to foresee risks and protect ourselves from them. Logic cannot resolve which side of the moral ledger any given bad outcome belongs on, leaving the field open for more invidious criteria: if something bad happens to me or to others with whom I identify, it is owing to brute luck, but if it happens to anyone else, it is owing to unwise choices.
A sensible public conversation about personal responsibility would have to begin by acknowledging the limits of human rationality. Even the most circumspect among us can recognize only a small fraction of the risks associated with a course of action and will assess the extent of the risk on the basis of radically incomplete information. If, observing that something bad did happen to you, we conclude that you should have foreseen that it could happen and planned accordingly, we are succumbing to hindsight bias.
Most of us are not all that circumspect most of the time. Any opponent of social security or universal health coverage who thinks it is sensible to leave it up to a 21-year-old to decide whether to insure against potential disasters does not know any 21-year-olds. And those of us who are older are not much wiser.
A public conversation about personal responsibility has to acknowledge the limits of human rationality.
Even in private contracting—the domain par excellence of atomistic individualism—the days of caveat emptor are long gone. A seller’s right to exploit a buyer’s imprudence or ignorance is severely limited by law because our capacity to look out for our own best interests is severely limited in fact. If we are required to be each other’s keepers when selling a lawnmower in an arm’s-length deal, why would we think “you made your bed, now lie in it” is the appropriate collective response when far more complex and significant choices turn out badly?
A sensible conversation about the limits of personal responsibility would also have to acknowledge the costs associated with minimizing risk. For many of the most serious economic risks we face—unemployment, declining housing prices, skills rendered obsolete by technological advances or global competition, government default—there is no private insurance market. We can reduce some of those risks on our own, at the extreme by forgoing activities that pose even minimal risk of catastrophic consequences—an aggressive form of the precautionary principle. But a world in which everyone is maximally risk averse is a world none of us wants to live in.
In a political climate in which “government: keep your hands off my Medicare” passes for an intelligible expression of hyper-individualism, the prospects for a sensible conversation about personal responsibility are dim. Konczal’s article, however, suggests another approach: instead of trying to change the public understanding of personal responsibility, we can try to change the subject to the collective benefits (in this case, economic prosperity) that could come from actually fixing the problems we face.
Trying to convert Americans to “consequentialism” in the public policy realm may turn out to be as hopeless as trying to peddle a psychologically realistic notion of personal responsibility. But it has one thing going for it that arguments about the limits of personal responsibility do not: it offers a concrete vision of a better world that is perhaps achievable if only we could stop arguing about who is to blame for the one we are in.
Barbara H. Fried, William W. and Gertrude H. Saunders Professor of Law at Stanford Law School, is author of The Progressive Assault on Laissez Faire: Robert Hale and the First Law and Economics Movement. She is also a member of the board of the McCoy Family Center for Ethics in Society at Stanford University.
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