On Responsibility, Taxes, and the Interconnected Web that makes up the United States

Not often in politics do we have the privilege of viewing two competing political philosophies, side-by-side, in a span of days. And yet, there it was, in just last week.

On Thursday, President Obama – for what seems like the first time in his presidency – ended a much-heralded speech on jobs with a rejoinder aimed squarely at the conservative, Reaganite wing of the American political spectrum:

No single individual built America on their own.  We built it together.  We have been, and always will be, one nation, under God, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all; a nation with responsibilities to ourselves and with responsibilities to one another.

There it was, a word you more often associate with Republican rhetoric than Democratic speechmaking: Responsibility. The novel idea that we, as Americans, are responsible to each other – that our achievements are constructed through the web of people who pave our roads, teach our children, police our streets, design our cars, invent our companies, bag our groceries, and everything in between.

That we can only succeed in this journey together.

The Republican presidential debate yesterday was the perfect counterpoint to President Obama’s remarks. As TPM describes, Ron Paul, during the debate, offered a very different take on responsibility. Asked the hypothetical of an uninsured man dying due to lack of insurance, Paul responds:

“What he should is whatever he wants to do, and assume responsibility for himself […] that’s what freedom is all about, taking your own risk [ample applause]”

In those simple words, Ron Paul captured the spirit of a very kind of responsibility: a responsibility towards oneself, and one’s actions; a brand of responsibility that is, in practice, a tautological excuse for those standing around a dying man to not call the doctor; to not to dial 911; to not perform CPR.

I cannot stand for the idea that responsibility for oneself for it’s own sake is a renouncement of our responsibility towards each other. The recurring philosophies that I hear from the Republican party – That the rich are responsible for their own success, so how can we tax them? That the poor are responsible for their own failure; how can we feed them? That the sick are responsible for not being insured, so why should we save them? – espouse this philosophy.

Republican cite economists. And free-market economists – as a grad student at the University of Chicago, I’ve met my fair share – are quoted as saying it’s all about incentives. If we help people, they won’t help themselves. It all happens at the margin. Look, here’s an equation to prove it.

But this reality is not exhaustive. It is nothing but a facsimile of the simplified economics taught to freshman in their first year in college. It is Econ101ism. And we cannot afford it.

Every time a sick man dies because he did not consider the expected value of his insurance, every time an ADD child becomes a janitor because society knew it was in everyone’s interest to not pay for his medicine, every time a grand country founded on liberty sinks into debt because it’s richest know they are entitled not to pay it – this country’s social fabric frays at the edges.

It’s a shame, because it’s made of such solid threads – spun and woven together by great generations.

Let me end with a thought experiment. Consider, for a brief moment, the web of people who enable you to be who you are. Start with your Facebook friends – dozens, hundreds. Add in your teachers: from elementary school, junior high, high school, colleges and beyond. If you drive, consider the people who built those streets, hung those traffic lights, and police those roads at 2 AM. If you benefit from electricity, consider the people who repair those electricity pools when the storm clouds depart. The truckers who drive thousands of miles to deliver the food you ate this morning.

Now imagine each of these people repeating this experiment.

Our ultimate incentive in this country – in every country – is to keep this web from disintegrating. It is the responsibility we have to each other. Without it, we are ships without lighthouses and without shores; ships with no crew, nor supplies, nor a port to call home. 

Leave a Reply