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A post on (former Denver mayoral candidate and current Denver Hispanic Chamber of Commerce President) James Mejia’s Facebook page about a drunk driver totaling his parked car reminded me of my similar experience about nine and a half years ago, and the lesson I learned from it about the moral and ethical deficiency that comes from the commodification of responsibility.

This essay forms a counterbalance to my essay on Political Market Instruments, which was more favorable toward another form of commodification of responsibility: the commodification of collective or shared responsibilities that serves the purpose of addressing the collective action problems involved. The potential benefits of some degree of commodification of shared responsibilities is that it converts the burden of meeting them into a monetarily lucrative one, and allocates that burden according to who can best bear it, transforming the value of meeting it into a tradable commodity. The commodification of personal responsibility, conversely, serves to insulate the individual from the moral or ethical dimensions of their obligation, reducing it to a market transaction in which an undue burden can fall on an innocent victim of another’s error.

When my wife and I moved to Colorado, we stayed with friends in Lakewood while looking for an apartment, our car parked on a quiet residential street. In the wee hours of the morning we all heard a commotion, and discovered a drunk driver had totaled my old but reliable Plymouth. State Farm, the young drunk driver’s father’s insurance company, tried to low-ball me (not considering the value of work done in Mexico for which I had no receipts, for instance, and offering me a settlement of about $1000, which was insufficient to buy a running car to replace the one I had), it being inherent to their business plan to try to pay the least possible, despite the fact that, morally and ethically, when a drunk driver totals your parked car, they really have a pretty unambiguous responsibility to make sure they make it completely right.

To the father’s enormous credit, when I wrote him a nice note about my predicament, he kicked in an extra $1000! So, in this particular instance, the outcome was a model of an individual taking personal responsibility despite the commodification of that responsibility insulating him from it. But it’s clear that that is exceptional, that the norm is to let the insurance company handle it, and that voluntarily assuming the moral responsibility which the insurance company insures people against is a rare occurrence. (In fact, the father mentioned in his reply to me that virtually everyone he knew counseled him to let the insurance company handle it.)

The system could certainly be tweaked to diminish this defect, without either eliminating the indispensible service of insurance or making its cost exorbitant. One way to diminish it, for instance, would be, in circumstances of absolute responsibility by one party for a harm suffered by another, a requirement that insurance companies accept the highest independent estimate of the value of the property destroyed (with perhaps some government certification of the those qualified to make such assessments, to prevent collusion between victims and those doing the assessments), since the injured party, morally and ethically, should get “the benefit of the doubt.” In general, when one person has an unambiguous moral responsibility to make another whole after inflicting some injury on them, their insurance company covering such liability must be held to the same moral standard that society would hold the individual. That is not currently the case.

Of course, we do have a recourse in place to ensure this result: Legal action. Unfortunately, legal action comes at a a cost to all involved, in time, stress, risk, and just general imposition. It is expensive, a form of transaction costs which get in the way of arriving at optimal solutions by making the process of arriving at them more costly than the benefits of arriving at them. There is also, in this case, grossly unequal institutional power between the insurance company and the individual challenging it, with the resources the insurance company has at its disposal to defend against legal action far outstripping the resources the individual has at his or her disposal (not to mention that accessing legal counsel may impose a cost on that individual that that individual should not have to bear.) Therefore, whenever possible, we, as a society, should prefer, whenever possible, to implement more seamless, costless mechanisms to arrive at optimal outcomes.

The commodification of responsibility, whether of the collective responsibility commodified by Political Market Instruments, or of the personal responsibility commodified by liability insurance, is not necessarily a bad thing. We only need to be careful that we are not erasing, or insulating the individual or collective from, any portion of that responsibility in the process.

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Of the many ideological debates we have, what we do least often and least well is to dig beneath the surface of conflicting ideologies and clearly identify the underlying values and attitudes informing them. Even those who adhere to a particular ideology are often unaware of what is at its core when you peal back enough layers of the onion. And that is how the rise of vicious and inhumane ideologies is possible, how it circumvents the cognitive dissonance imposed by countervailing moralities. Those who participate in that rise are either convinced that they are participating in something just and right, or have simply managed not to measure their beliefs by any moral standard.

There is nothing historically exceptional about viciousness and inhumanity. It is not the occasional violation of a norm of rational goodwill dominating our lives, but rather at least as potent a force, erupting into orgies of mass violence at frequent intervals around the world, but also ever-present in every society, percolating below the surface, sometimes bubbling upward and gaining force. America today is in such a moment of its history, allowing a vicious and inhumane attitude to gain prominence, to dominate public discourse and public policy formation.

Nor is it only those “others” who are to blame. It is not the fault of just one ideology. There are few who have not contributed to it. Regrettably, I cannot name myself among those few, for my own defects as a human being have too often and too greatly led me to serve my own emotional gratification at the expense of this ideal of a more rational and humane society to which we all should strive.

I don’t admit that gratuitously, but rather to make two sets of  points: 1) One does not have to be perfect to strive to be better, nor does one have to be perfect to encourage us all to strive to be better, nor does one have to be perfect to identify the most robust ways in which we as a society are failing to strive to be better; and 2) we do not most successfully strive, as a society, to be better, to do better, by laying all blame on others and exonerating ourselves, but rather by recognizing that we ourselves are all implicated in our failings as a society, and that the ideology across the aisle we respectively blame for all public sins may have its own virtues and we our own vices.

Most importantly, like Batman and the Joker, we create each other, and if we perceive in “them” something hostile to humanity, then we also must perceive in ourselves what we do to produce and maintain that hostile force.

Having said that, and recognizing that the hostility and anger and blind ideological rage on the Left is a contributing force to our growing inhumanity (rather than, as those who engage in these follies desperately wish to believe, a bulwark against it), the inhumanity itself is funnelled through and given voice by their counterparts on the Right. While we all need to strive harder to exemplify and exude a sincere commitment to reason and compassion and universal goodwill (which is not synonymous with complete pacifism or non-confrontationalism, but which does temper the degree to which our emotional inclinations too readily embrace hostile expressions of our ideological convictions and various interests), we also all need to recognize the growing inhumanity of our nation’s most prominent and vocal contemporary ideological phenomenon.

It is not wise to reduce this to individual substantive policy positions because, to be honest, it is not automatically the case that such positions, that on the surface appear inhumane, actually are: There is sufficient nonlinearity in our social institutional ecology, and a sufficient number of counterintuitive truths, that such assumptions aren’t warranted. But beneath those policy positions, informing those policy positions, is an attitude in which this inhumanity can clearly be discerned, an attitude of extreme individualism, of indifference to the realities of social injustice and unnecessary human suffering, an attitude stripped of real compassion or concern for those less fortunate than the holder of that value, an attitude which blindly blames all those who have not fared well on the basis of an arbitrary and more-frequently-than-not erroneous assumption that people get what they deserve, that we live in a meritocracy and those who do not succeed do not succeed as a result of their own failings. It is within that attitude, rather than within any particular substantive policy positions, that our growing inhumanity as  a nation, as a people, resides.

I have written extensively on the irrationality of many of the substantive positions and ideological certainties that have grown in the soil of this essentially inhumane attitude (see, e.g., “Political Fundamentalism”, “Constitutional Idolatry”, Liberty Idolatry, Small Government Idolatry, The Tea Party’s Mistaken Historical Analogy, The True Complexity of Property Rights, Liberty & Interdependence, Real Fiscal Conservativism, Social Institutional Luddites, The Inherent Contradiction of Extreme Individualism, Liberty & Society, “It’s a Wonderful Life,” American Political Edition (Parts I-V)). And I have alluded to the parallel between the sense of personal well-being and joy associated with striving to be compassionate, socially responsible, generous human beings on the individual level, and the similar benefits to our health as a society when we strive to institutionalize those attitudes through our pre-eminent agent of collective will and action (see, e.g., A Political Christmas Carol). Certainly, I have not been bashful about identifying our current right-wing ideological movement as one which is analogous in too many ways to that which we revile most as one of history’s worst eruptions of inhumanity (see, e.g., The Tea Party’s Mistaken Historical Analogy and Godwin’s Law Notwithstanding). But we need to be explicit and urgent about what it is we are talking about: The rise of an ideology of inhumanity.

It seems to me that there was a time, not long ago, when virtually no American would argue against the proposition that we have a shared social responsibility to reduce poverty to the best of our ability. Yet today we are in the throes of an ideological passion that says that poverty is not our shared responsibility, but rather a matter of individual choice (which, as those who have any knowledge of history or economics realize, means not addressing the issue to any significant degree at all, since it involves a collective action problem which is surrendered to by eliminating the notion that we have to address it through public institutions).

Despite the abundant statistical evidence that the legacies of historical injustice are reproduced in current distributions of wealth and opportunity, this ideology simply disregards any commitment to fairness, to trying to maximize equality of opportunity by facing the simple reality that it is not currently maximized, by insisting that any use of government is an act of violence against their individual liberties. It is an ideology informed by the obscenity that those who benefit most from our current political economy have no enforceable responsibility to those who benefit least, despite the fact that the disparity between the two is many times larger than it is in any other developed nation. It is a socially disintegrative, callous, and inhumane ideology. And it is has a significant and possibly still growing hold on us as a nation.

Those of us who recognize this, and recognize how imperative it is to confront it effectively, need to divert a little of our time and energy and resources away from arguing on an issue-by-issue, candidate-by-candidate basis, and toward arguing on a fundamental, underlying moral basis. We need to make clear in every word and gesture and deed and effort that what we perceive as wrong is not, for instance, the suggestion that we may have to reduce our long-term accumulation of public debt through some combination of spending cuts and tax increases, but rather the underlying attitude that while we are doing so our commitment to those who are most vulnerable and who are benefiting least from our social institutional arrangements still merit our collective attention and our collective commitment. We need to argue not only that this or that specific immigration reform is right or wrong, but far more emphatically that vilifying other human beings who are merely migrating toward opportunity in the only way they can is wrong, period. We need to argue not only that this law or that regrading marriage is just and right, but that burdening people with any inferior status on the basis of their sexual orientation is just one more form of bigotry, just one more way in which some human beings justify hating other human beings, and that that’s not who and what we are or who and what we want to be.

We need to define our political battles as a fight for our humanity as a nation and as a people, because it is our humanity that is very much in jeopardy. Let us be committed to respecting the dignity and rights of all human beings. Let us form our identities more inclusively rather than more exclusively. Let us always strive to do better as individuals, recognizing that that is part of what it takes to do better as a nation and a people. And let us be humble about substantive policies on complex issues (e.g., economics, energy/environmental, foreign relations), admitting that it’s a complex and subtle world, many aspects of which require in-depth analyses to arrive at well-informed conclusions. But let us never let up in our insistence that those analyses, that that  humility, be directed toward the end of benefitting humanity, because to stand for anything less is an act of violence and a cause for eternal shame.

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The bulk of my posts aggregate to inform A Proposal for a social movement, one which combines devising the best policy analyses in service to humanity with the best and most innovative and cognitively sophisticated messaging in order to attract an ever-widening range of the public to the agenda of Reason and Goodwill. The element that may be most novel and most powerful, however, is not this combination of the essentially familiar ingredients of policy analysis and messaging, but rather the one that can be a game changer, the one that may prove to be an irresistible force: Organizing not to change government or implement particular public policies so much as to create a simultaneously personal and social commitment to one another, by actually “walking the walk” of goodwill,  of mutual interdependence  and support, associating with “the progressive agenda” the attraction of a lived commitment to other people’s welfare.

As I wrote in The Ultimate Political Challenge, a single Gandhi or Martin Luther King, Jr. captures the imagination and, in time, wins over the hardened hearts of much of the opposition. They both knew the power of their goodwill, of their personal commitment to it, and acted with the discipline to turn that goodwill into a social force. These two “political entrepreneurs” mobilized their “charismatic authority” in service to specific issues within a Progressive world view (Indian Independence and African American Civil Rights, respectively). What we lack today are similarly compelling political entrepreneurs, mobilizing similarly dedicated charismatic authority. And the step that hasn’t yet been taken is to mobilize those forces not to address a single issue, but to address the underlying issue of being a people dedicated to reason and empathy.

Today, there are many progressives angrily striving to implement progressive policies, but too often doing so with little or no internalized, personalized, and dedicated goodwill toward fellow human beings. It is just another blind ideology in their hands, not a commitment, not something they’re willing to sacrifice for. I challenge each and every one of them –AND MYSELF– not just to talk the talk, but also to walk the walk, to be, to some small degree, a tribute to those who were willing to give their lives to humanity, by giving some portion of our own. I challenge us all to strive to be “political entrepreneurs,” to strive to invoke our own “charismatic authority,” to demonstrate that individual initiative does not have to be mobilized only in service to the accumulation of individual wealth. I challenge us all to do good by being good, and by being good, vastly increasing our credibility as advocates for public policies aligned with that spirit.

The Tea Partiers, and other extreme individualists, who have managed to rationalize an indifference to the suffering of others and a denial of the responsibilities to others that come with the blessings of good fortune, are able to dismiss Progressives as people who want to spend other people’s money against their will, because, in fact, that’s all they see. But what if they saw instead the people who organize to mentor neighborhood kids, to help out those who are facing a crisis, to counsel and assist people in need, to be what they preach we as a society should be, and only in conjunction with that lived commitment, only as an auxiliary to it, are struggling to create a government that facilitates what they are already doing every day, in every way, as a natural part of our shared existence? Can you imagine the force of such a social movement?

All reasonable people of goodwill, who want to promote reason and goodwill, need to do so on the ground, in daily life, independently of government, if they want the advance of reason and goodwill to prevail. Those who can’t summon enough commitment to model for others what reason and goodwill look and feel like need to recognize that they are no better than those they oppose, no more than a bunch of people trying to impose their will on others without being willing to live up to the demands they themselves have made. No wonder the Progressive Movement is making so little headway! Who can trust armchair altruists, who talk a good game but live lives no more noble or generous than those they condemn?

I passionately want for us to become a kinder and gentler nation, a nation of people lifting one another up, a nation aspiring to realize the potential of the human spirit. There is one clear path to that end: For all of those who want the same to commit themselves to its realization, by becoming the kinds of irresistible beacons to reason and goodwill that Gandhi and King were, that each of us can be, even if to some smaller extent. By as many of us as possible striving to do so, we will give the Progressive brand a reputation for sincere goodwill that ever fewer will be able to deny. And the future will increasingly belong to what is best and most admirable in human beings.

This is what a commitment to Progressive policies demands of us: A commitment to personal progress in service to social progress, to being as individuals what we are advocating that we become as a society. Striving to rise to that challenge is the greatest gift we could give to our children, to their children, and to ourselves.

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A perennial metaphysical question has reared its implicit head on this site, as it inevitably does when discussing how to strike the optimal balance between personal and social responsibility (i.e., how much do we insist that people are responsible for doing what they can with the hand they’ve been dealt, and how much should we advocate for some shared responsibility for the hand they’ve been dealt?). The question is Free Will v. Determinism: To what extent do we choose our own destiny, and to what extent is it chosen for us?

First of all, we all know that, subjectively, we have free will. I can type this now, or not. I can type the word “choose” or the word “cheese” or any other word that comes to mind. Nothing forces me to type one or the other. It may be the case that I need a keyboard on which to type, and whether I have one or not may depend on factors that are beyond my control (if I were born in a dirt poor sub-Saharan village, my lack of access to one might well be something over which I had no control). But, within the context of what is available, I clearly can choose from a wide range of actions.

On the other hand, my choices are caused by a variety of mostly invisible in-puts, past and present. Just because the causes are many and complex, and are obscured by the impossibility of tracing most of them, does not mean that they don’t exist. In what way am I ever the original force of anything? Though we experience our choices as originating within us, we know that they are affected by pushes and pulls large and small, such as the need to earn a living, to take care of the people we love, to earn respect and avoid condemnation, to satisfy expectations and to realize goals that have psychological roots that ultimately originate in some combination of the genes we inherited and the environment in which they spun out their code. In one very real sense, we are each just a very complex arrangment of dominos embedded in a forever toppling, almost infinitely complex and encompassing arrangment.

If it weren’t for Quantum Mechanics, there would be no doubt that, objectively, the universe and everything in it is entirely deterministic. A simple thought experiment demonstrates this: Imagine the entire universe at any moment in history. For the purposes of the exercise, let’s say one million B.C. Freeze that universe in your imagination and duplicate it. Now set the two identical universes to run forward through time again. How could they possibly diverge? Everything in the second was identical to everything in the first, every motion, thought, impulse, event, were identical. So the spear that the prehistoric man was about to let loose in the first, he is about to let loose in the second. It will hit the beast in the same place, with the same effect. Every particle, every current, every swirl in the suchness is identical, and so all consequences of all causes must unfurl in an identical manner, throughout time, forever. The universe is completely deterministic. 

Quantum Mechanics throws a wrench in this thought experiment, because, in reality, at the quantum level, uncertainty is an essential quality of nature. Quantum particles are not in one place and moving in one direction at one speed, but rather exist in a probalistic cloud, so that when the universe is duplicated, only the probabilistic cloud is duplicated, and slight variations will result at the quantum level. These variations will create tiny divergences in reality, that presumably will accumulate and amplify over time, until the two universes are quite distinct from one another. The universe is not objectively deterministic after all (at least not according to quantum theory).

Unfortunately for those who don’t like determinism, Quantum Mechanics has very limited relevance to the issues of personal and social responsibility. And mere free will matters less than how many choices that will has available to select from. Much in our lives is, in fact, determined prior to our existence, and independently of our choices. We are born into a family, with a given socioeconomic status, in a given location, in a given culture, at a given time, with a given social institutional context, with a given genetic make-up, and our range of available choices is dramatically constrained by all of those givens. Even to the extent that we buck the odds, we do so as the result of factors over which we had no control: A role model who encouraged us to be more confident and assertive; an opportunity, or a skill we happened to learn by a confluence of chances, or an inherent natural endowment; all or any of which are just the luck of the draw.

Recognition that the distribution of wealth and good fortune in the world and in this nation has very little to do with individual merit does not mean that personal responsibility has no role to play. No social system can function without an emphasis on personal responsibility, because unless we are motivated to be productive, and law abiding, and good citizens and parents and children and friends and neighbors and colleagues, then the failure to strive to be those things has consequences. It contracts the production of wealth and expands the production of suffering. Without an emphasis on personal responsibility, we all suffer more and benefit less. Personal responsibility is, by necessity, the cornerstone of any well-functioning society.

But there is no need to confuse functionality with fairness, or a social necessity with a moral imperative. While emphasizing personal responsibility, and leaving in place a range of costs and benefits that incentivize adherence to that value, we do not need to neglect the inconvenient truth that we are not in fact born into this world with equal opportunities, and that a commitment to both fairness and functionality demands that, particularly at the bottom, we limit the costs for failure to adhere to, and increase the benefits for success in adhering to, the demand for personal responsibility.

Fairness demands it, because if one is born into poverty and fails to either claw or excel their way out, their and their children’s and their children’s children’s ensuing suffering can hardly be blithely dismissed as just deserts. And functionality demands it, because the incentives to be predatory rather than productive increase as desperation increases, and providing increased opportunities to be productive and benefit from it is a very functional restructuring of incentives. Functionality further demands it, because destitution provides a very difficult platform from which to become productive, creating multiple obstacles (e.g., childcare while training for and looking for work, and resources to be presentable and prepared in job interviews). A public investment in the facilitation of the success of those least well positioned to achieve it serves both their interests,and society’s, for we all benefit from it.

That’s what our social responsibility is: To facilitate success; to create a context in which failure occurs less often, opportunities are more abundant, and personal responsibility is rewarded even if the circumstances themselves would not necessarily have rewarded it. Personal responsibility and social responsibility are not at odds, as ideologues on the right insist, but rather are natural partners in a society that is both more functional and more fair. We do not undermine incentives to work hard and succeed by making these public investments in providing increased opportunities, but rather augment the incentives to work hard, and reduce the burdens on society of failure to achieve due to constricted opportunities and other obstacles to success.

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