Paying People to be Responsible

The concept of personal responsibility has taken a battering lately. People are quite happy to blame anyone and anything other than themselves for their behaviour and actions. We are happy to pass the buck and shift the blame instead of taking ownership of what we do.

Some people used to jokingly claim, “The devil made me do it”. Now we mostly say, “Society made me do it”. Following Rousseau, we think that we are basically OK, but society corrupts us. And in the past few decades we increasingly use this excuse: “My genes made me do it”.

So today all sorts of behaviours, some of them anti-social – if not criminal – are being swept under the carpet because we don’t want to take responsibility for our actions. Thus we even have activities such as adultery and rape being explained, if not excused, in terms of our evolutionary hardwiring.

Some years ago social commentator Ben Wattenberg wrote that Americans have an obsession with what he called “The Victim Dictum” which states that “Every Problem Can Be Assigned To a Hostile Outside Agent”.  Finding someone or something else to blame for your crimes and misdemeanours always beats taking personal responsibility for them.

It goes without saying that no society can long last when most people no longer regard themselves as responsible for anything. Indeed, when most people expect that they are entitled to all sorts of things, and that a nanny state should continuously and instantly cater for all these entitlements, then the rot has well and truly set in.

Consider a recent government announcement in this regard. The Federal Government is considering paying people to lose weight. In the interests of tackling the national obesity problem, tax breaks or subsidies might be paid to overweight Australians. These could be used for such things as gym memberships and sporting equipment.

Now this is not altogether amiss. Governments of course use financial rewards and penalties as incentives all the time, and sometimes there is a place for them. The carrot and stick approach certainly can achieve results. Indeed, it is a truism that whatever the government taxes, it tends to get less of, and whatever the government subsidises, it tends to get more of.

Thus governments can seek to regulate behaviour and activities by applying these financial rewards and punishments. For example, to reduce cigarette smoking, government affix huge taxes to tobacco products. And to encourage green activities, government subsidise the purchase of things like water tanks or solar panels.

Given that obesity is a national medical problem, there is a place for government incentives to reduce overeating. But the concern is that more and more nanny state actions will simply reduce personal responsibility.

As governments take ever more interest and involvement in our day to day lives, it becomes all too easy for people to expect the government to do it all. And in an age of rights talk, the idea of government entitlements, coupled with the increasing reach of the welfare state, is producing a docile population in which the state is expected to do everything.

The question is, is there any end to the growth of the nanny state? While government subsidies may help us in our weight loss regimes, how about an emphasis on personal responsibility? How about letting people know that they are actually responsible for all sort of activities and behaviours, and that it is not the government’s business to get involved in the minutiae of personal behaviour?

After all, when we go down this path of subsidising good behaviours, where will it end? Maybe governments should pay people to not litter, or to not drive while drunk, or to not be racists. Maybe governments should pay people to be nice, or to hug their mums, or to keep their lawns tidy.

What happened to personal responsibility? What happened to character, courage, and conscience? That was the question Dr Laura Schlessinger asked in her best-selling 1996 volume, How Could You Do That? The Abdication of Character, Courage, and Conscience.

Of course there is a place for some government assistance here. I am not a libertarian, and governments can and should come alongside and help people to do the right thing. Thus in the past governments have offered certain benefits to heterosexual married couples which were not granted to other types of relationships, because of the enormous social goods and benefits which marriage gave to society.

And insurance companies for example will reward certain behaviours, such as non-smoking, while those who engage in high-risk behaviours will have to pay higher premiums, and so on. So there is a place for recognising right choices, and penalising bad choices.

But ultimately this must come from within. Indeed, at the end of the day there are only two major motivations for ethical behaviour: cops and conscience. When we are inner-directed, motivated by the courage of our convictions, responding to the inner moral light, then we don’t need a nanny state continually looking over our shoulders.

But when we have deadened our consciences, and extinguished the moral law written on our hearts, then external policing must come to the fore. That is why modern societies are awash with laws, rules and regulations. Increasingly we are not driven by the voice of conscience, so we must be herded by external state restraints.

And when a society goes down the road of allowing police enforcement to be the chief means by which morality is maintained, then such a society is in terminal decline. As Edmund Burke rightly observed, “Society cannot exist unless a controlling power upon will and appetite be placed somewhere, and the less of it there is within, the more there must be without.”

As governments more and more take over the role of family and the church, it also has to take on the role of producing and maintaining morality. And the modern secular state can only do that by the use of carrot and stick, by police on every corner, and by overflowing law courts.

Malcolm Muggeridge once remarked, “The great fallacy of our time is the one that says we may pursue collective virtue apart from personal behavior.” Nations are great only when individual citizens are great. And that greatness depends on character, virtue and taking responsibility for one’s actions.

So by all means bring on the sporting club subsidies. But governments must also seek to remind us of the overwhelming importance of individual virtue, morality and conscience. Without all this, no amount of carrot and stick regulation will even come close to dealing with our many pressing national problems.,22049,25686203-5001021,00.html

[1102 words]

10 Replies to “Paying People to be Responsible”

  1. Thanks for the heads up Bill on the proposal to pay people to lose weight. I’m heading straight to Mackas after work for a triple-double bacon cheesburger colossal supreme, upgraded to galactic. Then I’m renting the dvd Supersize me and hope to top 200kg by Christmas. When did you say the start day was for the subsidies?
    Steve Swartz

  2. The trouble with blaming some external agent for one’s own behaviour is that the agent so blamed can equally, by the same token, claim that some other outside agent made he/she/them do it. and so we have a potential infinite regress of agencies, and in the end no-one is to blame, except perhaps God (He is brought back in through the back door when this process runs into difficulties).
    The logic, or the total lack thereof, of our modern mindset is mind-boggling!
    Murray Adamthwaite


    John Adams the second president of America said in an address to the Military, 11 October 1798:
    “We have no government armed with power capable of contending with human passions unbridled by morality and religion. Avarice, ambition, revenge, or gallantry, would break the strongest cords of our Constitution as a whale goes through a net. Our Constitution was made only for a moral and religious people. It is wholly inadequate for the government of any other.”

    David Skinner, UK

  4. The beauty of blaming society is that at a stroke it not only negates individual responsibility but, because “society” is undefined and non-specific, no one is seriously expected to reform it. It lets us all off the hook. A favourite ploy of socialists is to blame criminal behaviour on poverty. It all sounds good to declare war on want but no one seriously expects them to held to their promises to end it. War and the poor will always be with us.
    David Skinner, UK

  5. It’s funny you wrote this today, of all days. On this very day 2 years ago I started an exercise regimen that consisted of a combination of running, cycling, and the exercise bike in front of the dvd player at home (the latter so I never had any excuse). I lost 25kg in the next 4 months to be smack bang on target weight for my height and I give glory to God for giving me an absolute resolute desire to keep going until I reached my goal.

    Naturally I got asked how I did it, to which I replied that I could write the world’s shortest book on the subject which would really just amount to a brief treatise on discipline and common sense with food and exercise. It is easy to make excuses for yourself, but ultimately you have to decide what you want your life to be. It’s not the philosophy that is hard (or complicated for that matter), it’s the courage to keep going when it seems unrewarding and you are ‘not in the mood’. That’s when it matters the most. How you apply that is something that is likely to be different for everybody, but ultimately there is just no substitute for pain and sweat.

    I remember thinking that the 24kg (my original goal, but I pushed a bit longer at the end) was an impossible idea at the beginning, but I got a nice surprise. But if the motivation doesn’t come from within (and that’s the funny intangible where God does a major work), it’s doubtful that a person will change as much, and – most importantly – make that change into something permanent. You can lead a horse to water…

    Maybe unhealthy food should/could just be more expensive! 😉

    Mark Rabich

  6. Bill, I think I would partly disagree with this aspect:

    So by all means bring on the sporting club subsidies. But governments must also seek to remind us of the overwhelming importance of individual virtue, morality and conscience. Without all this, no amount of carrot and stick regulation will even come close to dealing with our many pressing national problems.

    I suggest that Scripture does NOT give governments the authority to subsidise anything but only to “commend what is good and punish what is bad” (to approximate the words of Romans 13:3-5 and 1 Peter 2:14).

    So I recommend that we work for governments to operate as insurance companies do – apply assured penalties to bad behaviour (NB: not bad thinking) and let the absence of penalty be the reward for taking personal responsibility.

    As an aside, the Victorian government enquiry into removal of Equal Opporetunity Act exemptions for churches and private schools, and the move to arm the Equal Opportunity Commission with inquisitorial powers to investigate possible discrimination of its own volition, is a two-pronged attempt to “make people do good” which is
    a) contrary to its Biblical mandate
    b) futile

    I encourage every reader here to ask Family Voice for a briefing paper on the issue.

    John Angelico

  7. Just a couple points I’d like to make regarding this article:

    First, governments produce no product (or service) for their pay. All their income is taken forcibly from those who have earned it in the form of various taxes. Therefore, the government cannot give money to anyone without first taking it from someone else. So to suggest new subsidies only results in higher taxation of others.

    Second, I don’t know about in Australia, but here in America, the primary reason the people are overweight is because all the food has been switched to high fructose corn syrup instead of sugar. The body cannot properly metabolize HFCS so it just gets stored as fat – even if you exercise. Its really wicked stuff, and its very cheap and tastes great so there’s a lot of incentive for all food manufacturers to put it in their products. It also provides a use for all that corn we make here. In classic “love of money” fashion, the nation has effectively created a health epidemic that also has the wonderful benefit of giving doctors and drug manufacturers an endless supply of unhealthy people to treat. Believe me, the government doesn’t *want* us to be healthy and fit.

    Anyways, I know that has little to do with your article but I thought I should mention it.

    For a great article on HFCS, check this out:

    Nathan Schellinger, USA

  8. Thanks Bill for the article and Nathan for the link. I found the article and the comment from Australia interesting – The Professor 8 May 2007. Before paying people to slim we should be encouraging the government to ensure that people are well informed about the food they eat and even banning ingredients such as HFCS.
    Des Morris

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *