Over winter break I met with my conservative middle school debate partner, who I hadn’t seen in four years, to catch up and talk politics. Our conversation was wide-ranging, but one segment in particular has stuck with me as illustrative of a core disjunction between liberals and conservatives: The notion and conception of personal responsibility. Obviously, other political subcategories, such as progressive and libertarian, respectively could be substituted to an extent and conservatives and liberals are not monolithic in their stances. However, we make do with imperfect terminology where we can.
Back to the conversation. I brought up the growing enactment of voter ID laws across the country by Republican legislatures. To me, these laws are straightforwardly and obviously racist, particularly given that Republican state representatives have a tendency to go on TV and say, out loud, that they intend these laws to decrease Democratic and minority turnout. My friend, to my surprise, disagreed. To him, obtaining basic voter ID to vote was a matter of personal responsibility. Is it so much to ask people to obtain the proper ID necessary to vote? Isn’t it the “soft bigotry of low expectations” for liberals to suggest that poor minorities can’t obtain ID?
This line of thinking is very common among conservatives, particularly with respect to poor and minority communities, but also to those with substance issues — the latter is changing, but we still have Jeff Sessions as Attorney General. They conceive “personal responsibility” as the default status and concomitantly assess the failure of individuals and communities as deserved due to individual, personal or moral failings — there is often, but not necessarily, a religious component to this conception.
This whole notion of personal responsibility, tied up as it is with notions of “freedom,” is platitudinous and wrongheaded. We would do better to think of personal responsibility as a trait that exists to varying extents within different people as a function of variables generally beyond their control. These variables come in two forms. First, innate ability, and second, the environment.
With respect to innate ability, certain people simply have exceptional natural aptitude. For example, some fraction of the population are math prodigies and we would never say that it’s due to a failure of personal responsibility that I, as an adult, don’t have a knack for number theory. Likewise, across the spectrum of talents, certain people will be naturally above average and others below average.
Regarding environmental factors, most people should recall specific events in their development that were particularly important in establishing the traits they have today. For many people who are more well-off, these include books in the house, attentive parents, well-funded schools and teachers who look like them. For kids who lack these exposures, it is unsurprising that they grow up to have worse outcomes. Indeed, research shows that minority students are more likely to achieve when they have teachers — role models — who share their race and gender.
Research likewise shows that the stress of living in poverty essentially leads to a reduction in cognitive ability, making it more difficult for people in poverty to make the “right” decisions. Further research suggests that, due to structural factors of the economy, “escaping poverty requires almost 20 years with nothing going wrong.”
A typical conservative response to this kind of evidence and thinking is to bring up those people who come from poor, disadvantaged communities and have nonetheless made themselves successful. These people are themselves often conservative and attribute their success to their own personal responsibility. Consider, though, that conservatives apply this argument inconsistently. If ever there are burdensome regulations on small business, conservatives never hold up a few successful businesses and suggest that any business that has failed or was unable to navigate bureaucratic red tape was simply taking insufficient personal responsibility. Yet, it is this precise type of argument that’s used to justify obliging poor people who have been managing fine without a voting ID to spend their time going through a byzantine bureaucracy to obtain one.
In reality, such personal testimony from conservatives who have escaped poverty shows only that they don’t appreciate how their success is due to a statistical fluke, a lucky combination of innate ability and fortuitous environmental experiences and exposures that enabled them to succeed.
Certainly, personal responsibility and self-sufficiency are important, valuable traits that we should seek to foster. However, personal responsibility is not infinitely elastic in its capacity to overcome structural forces and the degree of personal responsibility within individuals is also a function of structural factors. Like all traits, it exists on a probability distribution among the population. Conservatives should ditch the ineffective platitudes and look at the data that shows the structural factors that need to be addressed to shift that distribution in a useful direction.