American Decline: The Issue of Individual or Communal Responsibility

I was just reading David Brook’s latest commentary suggesting changes that President Obama will have to make during the next two years in the wake of what seems to be coming defeats on Tuesday’s elections. In the midst of Brooks’s suggestions, a phrase jumped out at me that I’ve been wrestling with for a while, and I think misses the actual problem that our country faces:

Brooks wrote:

Third, Obama will need to respond to the nation’s fear of decline. The current sour mood is not just caused by high unemployment. It emerges from the fear that America’s best days are behind it. The public’s real anxiety is about values, not economics: the gnawing sense that Americans have become debt-addicted and self-indulgent; the sense that government undermines individual responsibility; the observation that people who work hard get shafted while people who play influence games get the gravy. Obama will have to propose policies that re-establish the link between effort and reward.

via The Next Two Years –

What jumps out at me is the continuing narrative regarding individual responsibility. That is, after all, the conservative critique of liberal politics — that “bleeding hearts” have embraced a therapeutic understanding that undermines individual responsibility, thus leading to a dependence on government that is unhealthy. And at some levels, there is a certain truth to that characterization in the creation of systems which minimize personal responsibility and create dependence.

However the problem I see with Brooks analysis is a problem I see with the conservative narrative that focused almost entirely on individual responsibility with no mention of corporate or communal responsibility. In truth, Brooks’s own analysis of the decline of values highlighted above lists “sins” of focus on individual wellbeing without concern for the community at large. Our “debt addiction and self indulgence” is not driven by any concern for others in our society, but rather in feeding of individual pride and comfort. The concern over the inequality between hard work and political influence is likewise based in seeking after individual success, wealth, and status which sees others as mere “resources” on the way to one’s personal achievement. We bemoan the loss of personal responsibility, a loss I dare to say that is rooted in our leaders (both right and left) inability to speak the truth and admit their own failings, but in fact what we have lost is what I learned in elementary school as citizenship — the belief that we sometimes needed to put aside our individual well being and comfort for the “…good of the nation…” (or as I would say today, “…the good of the local, national, and world community…”.

In the mid 1960’s of my childhood, America experienced great turmoil as both the movement for Civil Rights and the Vietnam war laid bare the myths of American esteem so prevalent during the Cold War years following World War II. And yet, within the institutions of society — the public schools that I attended at least — there was still education on civic responsibility, the belief demonstrated in the Muskateer legend in “…all for one and one for all!” In those years there was still a vague memory of personal sacrifice for the well being of the whole, sacrifice lived out by our grandparents in scrap metal drives, food and gas rationing, and New Deal programs like the Civilian Conservation Core designed to build individual esteem while contributing to the well being of all through road construction, development of public parks, and even the building of schools. It was the influence of the baby boomers, the post sacrifice generation (of which I am at the tail end) in their search for autonomy, in the call to “do your own thing,” and the desire to redefine themselves as different from their forebears that locked on to the American myth of independence and self reliance which has, over time, morphed into the triumph of the individual, and the decline of communal responsibility.

Brooks knows this, and yet he (like so many conservatives) is locked into the myth that conservatism is about individual rights and responsibilities. But from the beginning of our national experiment, much more energy has been expended on the belief that personal responsibility is not simply to one’s own well being, nor the well being of one’s own family, but also to the well being of the neighbor. Certainly we all have responsibilities to care for our selves, not being an unfair burden on others. However that does not abdicate one’s responsibility to one’s neighbor, nor a willingness to recognize that our own self interest is enhanced when our neighbor’s interest is enhanced. It is that understanding that led people to come together for barn raisings and town meetings, searching not only for the good of one, but also for the good of all.

Yes, we indeed have a values problem, but it isn’t only about individual responsibility. The ultimate question is how we begin to rekindle a sense of civic responsibility that recognizes Martin Luther King Jr’s “web of mutuality,” that my wellbeing is directly connected to your wellbeing. To try and form a society without this understanding is in fact to live somewhere between totalitarianism and anarchy, and will ultimately be our undoing.

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