October 6, 2011

Private: The Problem with Personal Responsibility

Health Care Reform, Kent Greenfield, tort reform

By Kent Greenfield, a law professor and Law Fund Research Scholar at Boston College Law School.

Americans love to be able to choose. The typical grocery store has more than 45,000 different items; the average American family has access to about 120 television channels. Glenn Beck opines, “for us to be able to choose, that’s a blessing.”

An analogue to the fixation on choice is the focus on personal responsibility.  Because people make choices, they should be able to take personal responsibility for those they make. This sounds like something all of us could agree on, even in this especially tendentious moment in political history.

My new book, The Myth of Choice: Personal Responsibility In a World of Limits, articulates some reasons to question this mantra of choice and personal responsibility.

Choice is limited in all kinds of ways. Humans are limited by brain science, habit, authority, culture, and the so-called “free” market, which restricts as much as it empowers. We are easily overwhelmed by choice. Consider the grocery store and television statistics mentioned above -- studies show that people are happier when they choose among fewer, not more, items; television viewers may want lots of channels but actually watch only a handful. 

Acknowledging the limits on choice is the first step toward recognizing the insidious nature of “personal responsibility” rhetoric. More and more, those on the right equate “personal responsibility” with choice. It is not about maturity or accountability but simply another way of saying that individuals get to make choices for themselves; they are masters of their fate.

This brand of personal responsibility is used to oppose health care reform, support tort reform, and explain away problems of homelessness or delays in hurricane response. It uses a respect for individual choice to make the political point that government should be small, uninvolved, and deferential to individual decisions.

The point is not soft-pedaled. A 2010 opinion piece in U.S. News & World Report argued that health regulations on food undermine “what were once considered quintessential American characteristics--personal responsibility and freedom of choice” and that such regulations have “sent us barreling down the slippery slope toward authoritarianism.”

There are a number of problems with this rhetorical link between personal-responsibility-as-choice and governmental and legal inaction. I articulate several in the book; the one I want to focus on here is that the rhetoric of personal-responsibility-as-choice allows some people to avoid responsibility.

Consider the story of Nicole Eisel. Nicole was a thirteen-year-old middle school student when she became obsessed with self-destruction and entered into a murder-suicide pact with a similarly obsessed friend. Other friends notified school counselors, who met with Nicole.  After Nicole denied the pact, the counselors let the matter drop without informing Nicole’s parents.

About a week later, Nicole and her friend consummated the pact in a local park. Her friend shot Nicole to death and then turned the gun on herself.

Who was responsible for Nicole’s death? If we take a simplistic view of personal responsibility, then the answer is simple: Nicole. She could have avoided death by not entering into the pact. We might also put her parents on the list--they are, by definition, responsible for the safety of their minor children. And let’s not forget the girl who pulled the trigger.

Was Nicole’s school also responsible? Nicole’s father thought so. He sued the school, alleging that officials failed to warn him. The school’s defense was that Nicole’s suicide was a “deliberate, intentional, and intervening act.”

This is the kind of question that the law knows how to handle. In a suit like this one, the law balances questions of duty, seriousness of harm, and causation. But let’s set aside the legal arguments and use Nicole’s case to question the political arguments around personal-responsibility-as-choice. It is fair to say that the school was asserting that Nicole’s choice--her “deliberate, intentional” act--meant that the responsibility for the suicide was hers and not theirs.

The school has a point. Nicole’s decision was certainly the most immediate cause of her own suicide.  But this argument misses something important. Many events have multiple causes and influences, and the responsibility for creating them is dispersed. That was probably the case with Nicole’s suicide. She certainly made bad choices. But in all likelihood, so had her parents and so had school officials.

If our dedication to personal responsibility focuses our attention on Nicole, that’s fine. But if that focus causes us to ignore the role played by others in her suicide, then we’re allowing others who ought to share responsibility for the catastrophe to avoid that responsibility.

This is indeed what happens in much of the political discussion about personal responsibility. The last person in the causal chain--the last person to make a “deliberate, intentional” choice--is seen as holding all of the responsibility.  Because of that, “personal responsibility” often provides a cover for simplistic libertarian phobias of government regulation, whether of food regulation or health care reform.

Letting the last person avoid all responsibility by pointing a finger upstream is usually a mistake. But it is also a mistake to allow the choosers upstream to avoid responsibility by pointing at the last chooser. The emphasis on the last choice in the chain ignores the constraints on those choices, not to mention the choices of myriad others who created the situation in which the choices were made. And that’s true whether the last chooser is someone like Nicole, or someone who is poor, homeless, accused of a crime, obese, or without health insurance.

It may be time to start talking less about personal responsibility and more about shared responsibility.