Personal Responsibility & The Need For Boundaries

A principle of libertarian thought is that the most free society is one that relies on individuals who, acting in their own self interest without government interference, will take personal responsibility for the consequences of their acts, and not interfere with the equal rights of others to do the same. It’s the romantic ideal of western individualism, and partly explains why Governor Gordon of Wyoming, sick with COVID himself, refuses to consider a statewide mask mandate. In his own words, each person should take responsibility for acting responsibly.

The romantic ideal of western individualism was not always recognized in the West. Cattle towns quickly discovered not every person could be counted on to act responsibly toward others. That’s why they banned guns in public places. Towns in the early automobile era discovered the same. That’s why they created speed limits and stop signs. You and I, the good people, can’t be relied on to exercise self interest that respects the well being of everyone else because, even with best intentions, we can’t anticipate all the variables. Among us are some who have little interest in respecting the rights of others. They’re in it for themselves and nobody else.

None of us can get through a day without affecting the well being of others in ways large and small, including public costs thrust on the community as a whole. Apocryphally, Mrs. O’Leary was careless with a lantern, and burned down Chicago. She stands as a parable illuminating truth about the public costs of motor vehicle accidents, house fires, degradation of the environment, entrenched poverty, public health, education, etc. If individuals are less than reliable about acting in their own self interest without doing damage to others, corporations are even less so. Consider the public cost of Purdue Pharmaceuticals, acting in its self interest, that sold OxyContin in ways that decimated communities with lives destroyed by opioid addiction. It’s a cost never to be recovered, no matter how much they’re forced to pay in fines. Expecting individuals to live up to the libertarian code of personal responsibility without establishing boundaries that protect the well being of the community is irresponsible. Expecting corporations to behave responsibly on their own is utter stupidity.

Child psychologists say kids need appropriate moral and social boundaries to creatively explore their expanding world. It sounds counterintuitive that boundaries, of a certain kind, are needed to encourage childlike curiosity and creativity, but without them children are rudderless, unable to calculate consequences, and clueless about how to be responsible for their actions. Inappropriate boundaries stifle creativity with enforced conformity, so it’s always a question of balance. It’s not much different for adults. We adults need to set our own boundaries that preserve our individual freedom, identity, and integrity, and we need the community to set boundaries that respect collective rights for the greater good. The need for boundaries is neither morally good nor bad. The moral virtue of boundaries is what social norms and political negotiation attempt to discover, and it’s always a changing target.

Libertarian thought romanticizes the freedom to live without boundaries in the expectation that people will be responsible for their own actions, not infringe on another’s freedom to do likewise, not create a public cost from their private acts, and not require public assistance in any way. Jewish and Christian scripture attest that humanity is not capable of living into that romantic ideal. It’s not that people are inherently bad, sinful or undependable. Most people want to be good, and do the best they can to live responsibly in community with others, even if they hold libertarian views. But we know from long experience that without restraint, societies devolve into the brutality of selfish competition for power and resources acquired for one’s self at he expense of others, without regard for how it affects the well being of the whole.

The American way trusts that a healthy representative democracy will eventually work out the right balance of boundaries that guarantee the greatest degree of individual freedom for every person that also assures a resilient and sustainable nation. Its Constitution, as amended, is a living document that establishes the framework, and can accommodate a changing balance of boundaries as conditions change. For good or for ill, politics is the process by which it does so.

1 thought on “Personal Responsibility & The Need For Boundaries”

  1. Very well expressed! It’s unfortunate that we find ourselves in a time when brutish competition has overcome most norms of decency, cooperation, and compromise.

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