An Essay on Personal Responsibility
There is a common sentiment that when it comes to health and what to eat, people should simply “know better”. But that stance has some serious flaws…
Originally published 2007
The feeling that “people should know better” is pretty widely shared, but the implications of that statement are pretty staggering:
- It’s up to each individual to know enough to protect themselves.
- It’s ok if American business takes advantage of their ignorance to make a profit.
- It’s not necessary for government to act as an “embodiment of wisdom” to ensure safety.
However, if every individual had to know enough to protect themselves in every single area of our lives, society just couldn’t function:
- There would be no seat belts, air bags, turn signals or dozens of other safety features that were heavily opposed by the auto industry until they finally enacted into law.
- There would be no laws against fraud. No lemon laws. No courts to enforce contracts. Because the answer in every case would be, “It’s your fault, you should have known better.”
- There would be no standard of weights and measures, because it would be up to you to know if you’re getting enough of what you paid for.
- There would be no driver’s licenses, driver’s tests, or rules of the road, because it would up to you to know enough to be safe.
- We would still have lead pipes, put together with lead solder, because it’s cheaper than copper, and would be up to you to know it’s dangerous for your children.
- There would be no laws against theft, because it would be up to you to know enough to protect yourself.
- Nor would there be laws against assualt, battery, or rape. It would be up to you to know how to defend yourself, and keep yourself fit to do so.
- There would be no laws against drunken driving, and no penalties for manipulating nicotine levels to make cigarettes more addictive.
In every case, the answer would be “It’s your fault if you don’t know enough.” And those are just a few of the implications I see off the top of my head. That was pretty much the world before government. It works for small groups engaged in a primitive life style. But it doesn’t scale well.
Government works for the betterment of society, in my view, when it acts to “embody wisdom”–when educated and enlightened views are cast into rules that improve life for us all. That function is especially necessary in today’s complex world, where it is simply not feasible for everyone to know everything they would otherwise need to know.
When government acts in that manner, it puts the brakes on capitalism. It enforces boundaries, ensuring that the efforts each person makes on their own behalf is devoted to an effort that benefits society, rather than one that harms it. A balance is required between the selfish interests which drive the economy and the protective impulses that constrain it. Constrain too much, and you have no economy. Constrain too little, and you allow fraud, theft, and other forms of behavior that are ultimately detrimental.
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