Since taking office, Trump has reverted to a more traditional Republican playbook: His economic policy offers huge handouts to the richest Americans, and it justifies this redistribution from bottom to top with the classic rhetoric of “personal responsibility” — a trope that has dominated American politics for the better part of three decades. As Trump says in his official statement on the budget, he “will champion the hardworking taxpayers who have been ignored for too long” while reforming the welfare state so that it no longer “discourage[s] able-bodied adults from working.”
“Personal responsibility” is a peculiar phrase, at once anodyne and foreboding. It is both an expression of breezy common sense and a barely concealed threat to those unfortunate souls who might be so foolish as to act irresponsibly. With its popularity in campaign slogans, commencement speeches and self-help books, it would be tempting to dismiss personal responsibility as an empty incantation — a way to name-check virtues every decent citizen can rally around: love and lemonade, patriotism and pancakes, personal responsibility and apple pie. It’s such a routine part of American discourse that the literal meanings of the words barely register.
Don’t be fooled. This language has had a profound impact on American politics. Weaponized by conservatives such as Ronald Reagan, then slowly adopted by liberals such as Bill Clinton, “responsibility” has shaped public policies from health care to housing. It is no coincidence, for example, that the greatest overhaul of the U.S. welfare state, which Clinton signed into law with bipartisan support in 1996, was called the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act.
The peculiar power of “personal responsibility” (which I write about in my new book, “The Age of Responsibility”) stems from the fact that it seems to answer the question of what the state owes to whom. Conservatives often argue that some people lead irresponsible lives, characterized by laziness and bad choices. So, since a large share of the poor and the sick have but themselves to blame for their suffering, the state does not owe them anything. And to tax people who work hard and make good choices in order to look after people who are irresponsible is not just bad for economic growth; it is immoral. “Americans have choices,” as Rep. Jason Chaffetz (R-Utah) put it on CNN recently, taking this logic to its ugly extreme. “. . . Maybe, rather than getting that new iPhone that they just love and they want to go spend hundreds of dollars on, maybe they should invest in their own health care.”
This way of looking at the world was, as the conservative writer David Frum has pointed out, particularly seductive when economic opportunity for most Americans was plentiful. The rhetoric of personal responsibility seemed to be in keeping with the experiences of people who knew that a high school diploma and a good work ethic were enough to earn a middle-class salary. And it offered an explanation for why many members of minority communities, who suffered from the effects of discrimination, were not faring as well: By invoking personal responsibility, Americans could tell themselves that racial disparities did not stem from historical injustice but rather from factors for which the poor were themselves to blame.
But as economic opportunity began to dry up for many white Americans, the invocations of responsibility came to feel jarring. Whereas the Republican base once saw personal responsibility as a way to claim credit for its successes while casting blame for others’ failures, the same language now feels like a way of adding insult to injury. As Peter Beinart has argued, in the eyes of many traditional Republican voters, their party’s elites, not content with placing the agendas of big businesses and special interests over those of common people, insisted on also blaming them for their own struggles. Trump, in Beinart’s words, was so appealing in good part because “instead of demanding personal responsibility,” he pledged “state protection.”
That is one of the main reasons Trump paid such a small price for jettisoning GOP economic orthodoxy on the campaign trail: Long before his refusal to distinguish between the virtuous and the irresponsible, the old language of personal responsibility had started to lose its hold.
The vast gulf between candidate Trump’s promise not to judge ordinary Americans for their problems and President Trump’s policy of making life more difficult for Americans who fail to be self-sufficient creates a new opening for liberals. After decades when talk about personal responsibility gave conservatives ideological hegemony over most discussions of the welfare state, liberals could now go on the rhetorical offensive. Instead, they are stuck in defense mode, intent on refighting yesterday’s battles.
Stunned by the rhetorical power of “personal responsibility,” the left long ago came to accept the assumptions of its political adversaries. As G.A. Cohen put the point in a highly influential 1989 paper, egalitarian political philosophers began to incorporate “the most powerful idea in the arsenal of the anti-egalitarian right: the idea of choice and responsibility.” The same transformation soon became evident in everyday political rhetoric: Democratic Presidents Bill Clinton and Barack Obama spoke as though they wanted to help only those Americans who were in need for reasons beyond their control, incessantly emphasizing the plight of those who “work hard and play by the rules.” But since they sought to preserve key social provisions, they highlighted an empirical disagreement instead: Most people are not at fault for being in need. Rather, they are victims of larger social and economic structures. As Obama likes to point out, the poor are struggling because the economic “system is rigged against the middle class.”
He had a point, of course. Though Americans like to think of themselves as a classless society, economic mobility in the United States has fallen below the levels recorded in most European countries. And a big reason is the very racial injustice that constant talk of personal responsibility only serves to deepen. As study after study has demonstrated, the odds are still stacked against blacks and Latinos: They are likely to be born to less-educated parents, to attend worse schools and to have more trouble finding jobs than similarly qualified whites.
Yet, the left’s approach has not led to a more positive vision of the economy. All too often, the focus on obstacles has painted poor people as passive creatures who could never aspire to real agency. Instead of thinking of them as equals, just as capable of taking their fates into their own hands, the left has, as political philosophers Elizabeth Anderson and Jonathan Wolff have argued, adopted a stance of pity for those poor dolts who could never amount to anything because of all the structural forces aligned against them.
In attacking Trump’s proposed budget, and slowly building a forward-looking platform for 2020, liberals should break with the punitive politics of responsibility in a much more radical way. Over the past decades, they have allowed the welfare state to turn into a vast — and all too often discriminatory — machine for determining who is supposedly acting responsibly and who is supposedly failing to do so. (While workers who were laid off because their companies went bankrupt are eligible for welfare benefits in most states, for example, those who were fired because they came to work late are often ineligible.) Instead, liberals now need to envisage an economic policy that would empower citizens of all classes and races to lead meaningful, economically productive lives — whether or not they have used drugs or served time or failed to finish high school.
To build such a platform, liberals should, counterintuitively, recognize that personal responsibility can be a positive force. Stripped of its punitive connotations, responsibility is a virtue most people are eager to practice: It’s not just that they want to do more than live off government handouts. Most people also place huge importance on the responsibilities they have taken on for people beyond themselves — their children and parents, neighbors and fellow parishioners — as well as for their social and political causes.
Much of the economic policy of the past decades has been driven by the assumption that personal responsibility is a narrow, negative obligation and that the state has to incentivize people to live up to it. Instead, we should recognize that most people already aspire to a broader, community-minded notion of responsibility, and that the state should help ensure that people have access to the basic educational resources they need to realize this goal.
A positive vision of responsibility would not be a political cudgel against ordinary citizens, a way to punish people for their pasts or to deprive them of state assistance. Instead, it would start with the recognition that, with a little help, most people are perfectly able and willing to take control of their own lives.