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Responsibility and Private Property

February 28, 2012

In a recent conversation about global warming, my conversation partner, an old friend who is a professor of North American studies at a German university, opined that climatologists were being "irresponsible" if they contradicted the official line that climate change would spell certain disaster for the human race if capitalist industry were not swiftly reined in. This got me to thinking about the meaning of the word "responsibility" and how it is used in everyday discourse.

Being a teacher myself, my thoughts turned first to how it is used by teachers with reference to students. Most often, it is taken as merely a synonym for obedience: a student is "irresponsible" if he does not follow the teacher's directives. It seemed to me that this was also the sense in which my friend was using the word. In her view, the stakes for mankind were simply too high for the scientific community to brook any dissent whatsoever over climate change. The matter had been resolved by a plebiscite of government scientists. All "responsible" climatologists were in full agreement on it, and those who dared to challenge the orthodoxy were guilty of a breach of professional ethics.

Webster's defines responsibility as the quality or state of being "liable to be called to account as the primary cause, motive, or agent" of a particular action or circumstance. When equated with obedience or submission, the concept therefore becomes self-contradictory: one cannot be the primary cause, motive, or agent of an action that one was compelled by one's superiors to commit, as the exculpatory cliché of Nazi officers ("I was only following orders!") suggests.

Responsibility means that one is accountable for one's actions, but this is impossible if the authority for decision making does not lie with the actor himself. In its fullest sense, responsibility means the acceptance by the actor of the full burden of this accountability, an awareness that he cannot pass the buck, so to speak, but alone must bear the moral weight of the consequences of his actions. A society of responsible citizens, then, is not one in which the masses play follow the leader; rather, it is one in which, as a rule, the individual makes no attempt to place outside himself the locus of accountability for his own decisions, nor asserts the right to have others relieve him of it. Responsibility is therefore strongly associated with such qualities as maturity, self-control, and intellectual autonomy, while it correlates negatively with dependence, subservience, and social conformity. This is why it is axiomatic in libertarian philosophy that liberty and responsibility must necessarily go together, and why Viktor Frankl said that the Statue of Liberty in New York should be offset by a Statue of Responsibility in California.

This raises an interesting question: How exactly do people learn to be responsible? Behavioral psychology offers an insightful answer. The paradigmatic example, which I first encountered during inservice teacher training nearly 20 years ago, is the way effective parents teach their children to be responsible with that most vilified of all resources — money. This example made a great impression on me long before I knew what libertarianism was, and helped prepare me for the more conceptually heady theories of Misesian economics and Rothbardian anarchism. Being simple, universal, and all too human, it has on occasion also helped me gently coax some of my more left-leaning acquaintances into softening their stance toward the "evils" of the free market.

Responsibility Training

According to standard behavioral psychology, the parents who successfully impart to their offspring the difficult and sometimes painful lessons of financial responsibility are those who consistently create situations in which the children first make decisions about money and then live with the consequences. Parents must, in other words, enroll their little darlings in the school of hard knocks.

To do this, three conditions need to be met, and met consistently:

  1. Children must be given a firmly set, periodic allowance. (The amount should be sufficient to cover all regularly recurring expenses, e.g. lunch money for school, plus perhaps one or two modest, age-appropriate luxuries, such as a new game or a trip to the ice cream parlor.)

  2. Children must be granted the freedom to spend the money without parental stipulations, interference, or ex post facto punishments (we are assuming here that six-year-olds will not be given sums sufficient for the purchasing of cocaine, semiautomatic firearms, etc.).

  3. When the money is gone, it's gone — all whining, nagging, and toy throwing to the contrary notwithstanding.

All three of these conditions are essential to the success of the program, as many an exasperated mother and father have discovered. The reason is simple: the learning of responsibility requires both full control of a resource (ownership) and clearly defined natural limits (opportunity costs). Absent ownership, the child will not learn financial accountability because the decisions about how to allocate the funds were not authentically his own; without opportunity costs, the child's spending decisions, though perhaps entirely his, will produce no consequences from which he could learn anything.

The applicability of this necessarily somewhat artificial pedagogical tool to the natural moral evolution of a society becomes clear when placed in the context of an unhampered market operating within a clearly established framework of (legally) inviolable individual property rights. Where the child in our example is given an allowance appropriate to his stage of development, on a free market each citizen receives remuneration commensurate with his contribution to economic production. As the child is free to spend his allowance as he sees fit, so too is the citizen at liberty to dispose of his earnings in whatever way he chooses, whether as entrepreneur, investor, or consumer. And finally, in the same way that the child was constrained not by the coercive intervention of authority figures but by the finitude of his allotment and the need to consider outcomes and make trade-offs, so the adult member of a free society must learn to make similar calculations and compromises when confronted with the limitations of his own resources and the boundary between his property and that of his fellows.

These, then, are the prerequisites for the inculcation of responsibility in the young, and more broadly, for the proliferation of accountability throughout society. Like the rose bush whose growth requires both soil and scaffolding, responsibility has little chance to develop fully without the freedom to negotiate and make decisions autonomously within a dependable framework of benign (noncoercive) constraints.

Sometimes when making this case to interventionists, the objection will be raised that it is not in fact a case for freedom at all, but for centralized economic control.

They will ask, What about those who are too poor to afford luxuries and are just barely meeting their expenses? Is this not a violation of the first condition, and doesn't this then justify government assistance? The second condition — freedom from coercion — may obtain for both rich and poor alike, they will say, but you have admitted that freedom in itself is not sufficient.

They may also object to the enormous fortunes of the business elite on the grounds that these are a violation of the third condition, which says there must be strict limits, and finally conclude from all this that I have made the strongest possible case, not for laissez-faire, but for state intervention on a massive scale!

There are three problems with this reasoning. The first is that the reason children have to be given resources without any productive contribution on their part is precisely that they are developmentally incapable of making such a contribution. They live in a state of helpless dependence that, though unavoidable, is also temporary, subsiding gradually as competence grows and maturity is approached.

Indeed, it is a central task of parenting to obviate this dependence over time through the incremental withdrawal of external support until full independence — adulthood — is reached. Were parents to subsidize their children permanently, theory and experience both indicate that maturation would be inhibited roughly in proportion to the size and periodicity of the subsidy.

It is just this latter situation that the forcible redistribution of income by government tends to create. Except in the case of the permanently disabled (whose burden of responsibility in our sense diminishes relative to the extent of their disability), welfare is given to competent adults, not dependent charges, with the result that over time there will tend to be a decline in personal accountability and autonomous decision making on the one hand and an increase in the number of persons claiming to need assistance on the other.

If transfer payments are not time limited, a pattern of learned helplessness sets in, reversing the developmental trajectory and turning otherwise autonomous adults into de facto children.

As the skillfully applied techniques of individualized, noncoercive parenting gradually culminate in the raising of a child, so the artless, bureaucratic machinations of coercive state paternalism conspire over time to lower an adult. In giving welfare to the competent, the state is not fulfilling the first condition of responsibility at all but is instead merely violating the third.

The second problem with the statist response is that the natural immaturity of children means that their parents are (temporarily) inherently superior to them. Until a child grows up and establishes his independence, the parent-child relationship is one of superordinate to subordinate.

It is unfortunately all too easy to conceive of the relationship between government and citizen in this way also, but the temptation fades once it is realized that the government is nothing but a bunch of people. Both elected official and constituent are autonomous, adult human beings who cannot a priori be distinguished from one another. Hence, both are of the same order; neither has any claim to categorical superiority. What's more, in a system of democratic representation, if anyone should play the role of parent it is the citizen, since it is he who, though the casting of his ballot, is supposed to hold the politician accountable, not the other way around.

Finally, with regard to the third condition, it is not the case that the richest few are without limits. It is true that they enjoy a relative freedom from scarcity that few can attain, but they are as strictly bound as anyone else by the rights of others to their own property. However great the tycoon's fortune, where property rights are absolute his use of that fortune may not impinge upon the person or property of even the poorest of his fellow citizens. Moreover, the ultimate purpose in learning to be responsible with a resource is to maximize its utility, and on the free market it is the success of the wealthiest in doing just this — directly for themselves, but indirectly for everyone — that is the sole cause of their material abundance.

We thus arrive at a foundational principle of social responsibility: Where there has been neither force nor fraud, the accumulation of wealth (profit) is the reward for the responsible use of resources in social production, and it is allocated, not arbitrarily by ruling elites, but voluntarily and in precisely the desired proportion by all members of society in their capacity as consumers. As such, its confiscation, redistribution, subsidization, or legal protection must violate the ownership prerogatives either of the most responsible producers, of all consumers, or both. The result must be a tendency toward less responsibility, as the only available means for holding business accountable to the public is neutralized, and the necessity of facing consequences mitigated for everyone in society.


The three essential preconditions for learning responsibility can be summed up in a single word: ownership. In psychology, the person who takes responsibility for his decisions is said to "own" them, while in common speech we say that accepting moral accountability for an action means "owning up to" it. In this sense, responsibility is ownership, and we use proprietary metaphors to describe it in unconscious recognition of that fact. That is why the free society must also necessarily tend to produce the most responsible citizens: its unwavering dedication to full liberty supported by a firm scaffolding of equal property rights for all is the only means for establishing on a broad scale the conditions that parents have been using to raise responsible children since time immemorial.

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