Conservatives love to present themselves as defenders of the ideal of personal responsibility. According to a common trope, the Right believes that people should take charge of their own lives and that individuals should receive the rewards — or punishment — that accrue to them as the result of their actions. Liberals and leftists, on the other hand, don’t believe in personal responsibility: they supposedly promote a culture of people blaming others for their problems, constantly playing the victim and expecting “handouts” from the more virtuous and more productive.
The theme of personal responsibility is a favorite of right-wing pundit Ben Shapiro, to take just one example. Shapiro champions what he calls “Judeo-Christian philosophy,” which “demands that we do our best and that we act virtuously on the individual level so that we can feel secure without invading each other’s rights. The Judeo-Christian tradition says that with freedom comes responsibility.” Left-wing “collectivist” philosophies, on the other hand,
expect us to give our individual striving up. All we have to do is trade our individual responsibility for the comfort of collective power. . . . We can avoid that [individual] struggle by handing over all power to a nanny state.
It may be tempting to respond to this argument by attacking the idea of personal responsibility. After all, many aspects of a person’s fate — especially in our highly unequal society — simply aren’t up to them. From one’s educational and job opportunities to their likelihood of ending up victims of violent crime or the police state, much of what happens to a person is in fact out of their control. In this context, talk of personal responsibility and “pulling yourself up by your bootstraps” can feel like a cruel joke.
Socialists should certainly condemn the injustices that allow some people to thrive while others are subject to grinding poverty and arbitrary violence. But that doesn’t mean we should reject the idea of personal responsibility. Socialism is about enabling everyone to take responsibility for their own lives — and ending the parasitic mooching of the ultrarich.
Reap What You Sow
Right-wingers often defend free-market capitalism, and oppose welfare or wealth redistribution, on grounds of moral desert. In a free-market society, they say, people’s incomes reflect what they’ve earned through their choices and what they’ve contributed to society. The rich have plenty because they’ve made prudent choices and reaped the rewards of hard work and innovation; the poor have little because they were lazy and made reckless decisions. Attempts by the government to reduce inequality by redistributing wealth from the rich to the poor represent a theft of what the former are morally entitled to, in order to bail out the latter for their bad life choices. What’s worse, taking from the rich to give handouts to the poor discourages people from taking responsibility for their own lives, instead fostering a culture of “playing the victim” and expecting others to provide for them.
What this story ignores, of course, is that the fortunes of the wealthy under capitalism have very little to do with hard work or virtue. Much of the wealth of the ultrarich comes from inheritance, i.e., what mom and dad passed down — hardly the fruits of people heroically taking responsibility for their own lives.
Insofar as the very rich “earned” their wealth, much of this comes from profits on investment. That is money that people make not by working or even coming up with good business ideas but simply by contributing capital to an enterprise, which is turn powered by workers who receive a fraction of the value their labor creates. Workers, who have no access to “means of production” like land, factories, or machines, have no choice but to sell their labor for a wage to capitalists, who own the means of production. The workers make a product, which the capitalist then claims ownership over and sells on the market; from the resulting revenue, the capitalist pays the workers as small a wage as they can get away with and then pockets the rest as profits. As Karl Marx argued long ago, this income from profits is the fruit of exploitation.
So the right-wing story about how the rich earn their fortunes gets it almost exactly backward. The rich do not become rich through their own hard work or personal initiative: they acquire their wealth by mooching off the productive efforts of their employees.
Socialists regard this situation as unjust and irrational, and we imagine a world of collective ownership, in which both economic decision-making power and the fruits of productive activity are shared equally. That would be a world in which the wealthy few are no longer able to live parasitically off of the work of the vast majority, and in which all would be empowered to help make decisions about investment and production. The vast majority of people would have more of a say in how their lives turn out, yielding a world of greater personal responsibility.
Opportunity and Responsibility
The socialist vision of a good society goes beyond the critique of capitalist exploitation. The core of that vision is the belief that everyone should have the means to live a flourishing life. At the bare minimum that means shelter, food security, health care, education, leisure time, and opportunities for meaningful work.
That doesn’t mean that we want to guarantee “equality of outcomes,” as conservatives sometimes charge, let alone establish a Harrison Bergeron–like dystopia in which inequalities of intelligence or talent are eliminated. What socialists want is to provide everyone, regardless of accidents of birth, with the basic necessities so that people can truly take charge of their own lives. If a child is struggling to get their nutritional needs met, they will hardly be able to focus on school; if a person is unable to afford college, say, or medical treatment for a potentially debilitating illness, their opportunities to pursue certain careers or develop valuable talents may be crushed.
But if everyone’s basic needs are met, then everyone has genuine options to live their life in the way they think is best. That means ensuring people ample leisure time, as well as allowing people to acquire the knowledge and skills to contribute to meaningful, socially necessary work. In this sort of society, people will have more ability to determine the shape of their own lives as individuals and to participate in collective decision-making about what their society should look like. It would be a society, in other words, in which “the free development of each is the condition for the free development of all.”