52 Quintillion Responsibilities

July 2014  |  Status: Third Draft

One of the favorite mantras of conservatives, libertarians, anarcho-capitalists, and other assorted right-wingers is that each of us should take responsibility for our own actions. According to them, the modern welfare state is profoundly unjust because it makes people responsible for other people’s actions. If you go hiking in the Rockies and break your leg, it’s your fault. Why should I, the argument goes, subsidize the cost of your recovery through a national health care program? Similarly, if you’re unwilling or unable (due to lack of skill, etc.) to find a job that pays well, why should I bail you out through a socialized scheme of employment insurance?

The typical response from the left is that you’re not responsible for your misfortune, either. Perhaps your hiking accident was caused by an unpredictable natural phenomenon, like a falling tree. Perhaps your parents never gave you a chance to develop any marketable skills. Perhaps you were born with a serious disability, thanks to the genetic lottery. In any case, why should you take responsibility for something that wasn’t your fault? It makes no sense for you to pay for them out of your pocket, either! Since it seems that neither you nor I are responsible, but shit happens anyway, so why don’t we get some sort of group insurance?

This kind of response is OK in cases of brute luck. But in the modern world, few things happen due to brute luck only. We have systems in place to estimate the risk of nearly every misfortune imaginable, including the misfortune of unemployment. Our estimates are not always reliable, but their level of reliability can be estimated in turn. Even the proverbial bolt of lightning can be reliably avoided by staying inside during storms. So there is hardly any room for any person (even children) to escape at least partial responsibility for his or her choices. Genetic lottery? Bullshit. Your parents should have known the risks, done the tests, and planned accordingly.

The reason the left run into the objection above is that they have already conceded an important point to the right. This is the seemingly intuitive idea that people are only responsible for their own choices. Because both the left and the right accept this idea, their quarrel devolves into nitpicking about who is or isn’t responsible for what. This also forces the left to paint people as helpless victims of the Fates, which does nothing but heap more fodder upon the pulpits of the right.

But are we really only responsible for our own choices? If you see a man drowning, and it’s not your fault that he is drowning, why does morality tell you to rescue him? Could it be that our responsibilities actually extend way beyond what we often like to think?

Here’s an idea I’ve been toying with lately: each and every one of us is responsible for ensuring that each and every one of the rest of us is alive, healthy, happy, and enjoying the full protection of our universal human rights. As far as this basic minimum is concerned, it doesn’t matter what choices anybody made. (Choices only matter if you want extra perks.) Meanwhile, our only excuse for not devoting the rest of our lives to the fulfillment of this titanic duty is that most human beings are physically and economically incapable of helping 7.2 billion (and growing) other people without seriously compromising their own health and happiness.

If so, the welfare state is not a matter of figuring out who is responsible for what, but simply a method for batch-processing our 7.2 billion × 7.2 billion = 52 quintillion duties under realistic constraints. It is, of course, far from the most efficient method, but at least it seems to be somewhat less inefficient than all the alternatives we’ve tried so far.