Personal Responsibility

On Jan. 16, President Bush challenged a United Nations report recommending steps to combat the problem of obesity as an international health problem. The UN recommendations included placing limits on food advertising aimed at children and restricting fats, salt and sugary sodas.

The administration promptly trotted out its mantra of personal responsibility &endash; the idea that everybody is on their own. You are responsible for all your own decisions &endash; no matter how hard politicians and corporations have worked to tinker with your mind. You are responsible for knowing that Iraq had nothing to do with 9/11 and that the Medicare prescription drug benefit probably won't do you a bit of good but will help the drug companies. You are responsible for ignoring the cute pictures of Ronald McDonald and focusing on the fact that a double quarter-pounder with cheese has 770 calories and 47 grams of fat.

Personal responsibility starts with areas that might be considered conscious choices, like going to a fast food outlet, and extends into every social program ever developed. If you get sick, don't expect other people to pay your medical bills. If you don't have an income, don't expect other people to support you. If you have children, you'd better be prepared to cover all the costs of child raising on your own. If you get old and you're poor, it was your responsibility to save for the future.

"Personal responsibility" has become the catchphrase of everyone who wants to cut back on government social programs for health, education and equal opportunity, and boost corporate freedom to pollute and mislead. Personal responsibility is what's left after you take away corporate and government obligations from the social equation. 

The notion of personal responsibility removes the concept of an interdependent society, and assumes that we all have to take the full consequences of our actions. Ellen Goodman, in the Boston Globe on Jan. 8, described a focus group of "stressed-out working families" who should have been demanding state funding for child care services. One of the mothers said "nobody asked us to have children." Yes we did. Every elected politician who voted for budget deficits that will be paid off by future generations asked for more children to pick up the debt. To paraphrase a classic line, we have personal responsibility for the poor, and shared responsibility for the rich.

The notion of personal responsibility has some justification. On Jan. 9, the Associated Press reported that Timothy Dumouchel of West Bend, Ind., had withdrawn his threat to sue his cable television provider for turning him and his family into couch potatoes. The Las Vegas Sun (Nov. 6, 2003) reported on an automobile passenger who sued the owner of a cinderblock wall when her driver failed to stop in a dead-end and crashed his car into the wall. There are lots of anecdotes of people who drank too much and then sued the bar where they drank for accidents caused by driving under the influence. There is a place for personal responsibility, but it shouldn't be extended to justify the evisceration of all social programs.

The nature of human society imposes shared responsibility. The notion of complete individual independence from others is an illusion. A few centuries ago, it might have been commonplace for families to grow their own food, raise their own livestock and make their own clothing &endash; but they still required the services of others to make some basic tools. Even the mountain men, the Daniel Boones and Jim Bridgers, relied on the services of a blacksmith. The very nature of a family implied a division of labor, some to be hunter-gatherers, others to take care of the home. Having children was a form of social insurance, making sure that you had someone to care for you in your old age. As society becomes more complex, the need for people with more specialized education becomes greater. We take it for granted that there will be somebody to provide the services we need, whether it's to fight our wars or program our computers. We rely on somebody else to fix our teeth, and the dentist relies on others to make the dental equipment and generate the electricity. 

The advocates of personal responsibility don't seem to understand just how much they rely on others. When times are tight, as they are now, the first cutbacks are in social programs. In Florida, Gov. Bush's budget cuts forced an estimated 35,000 students out of community college programs. In Maryland, the tuition at the state university is due to increase by 20%; in Mississippi, the budget for the state university faces a 12% cut, which will have to be made up by tuition increases. In New York, tuition at the state university has jumped 140% since 1995.

In California, Gov. Schwarzenegger has proposed freezing enrollment in state-sponsored health insurance programs. In Georgia, proposed Medicaid eligibility changes would eliminate prenatal care for 12,500 pregnant women and 14,700 children. In Maine, budget cuts would double the costs of prescription drugs for Medicaid recipients. By mid-2003, every state except Alabama had either reduced health care spending for the poor, or planned to do so.

Sam Uretsky is a writer and pharmacist living on Long Island, N.Y.

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