Organized Irresponsibility


Dr. Carson is Professor of American History at Grove City College, Pennsylvania.

Much of the criticism of govern­ment officials, bureaucrats, and politicians is beside the point. Stories are legion of attempts to contact the appropriate bureau­crat to deal with some matter, particularly in Washington, and getting the run-around instead —shunted from one person to an­other, told that the proper official is in conference, that he is on leave, that he cannot be reached at present, and so on. The diffi­culty may well become insur­mountable if there is an attempt to place the blame for some ac­tion. Such experiences may build pressure for yet another commis­sion to be appointed, in the man­ner of the old Hoover Commis­sions, to investigate the bureauc­racy and recommend change. A new President may become so exasperated trying to establish clear-cut lines of authority and responsibility that he will press vigorously for reorganization. These are attempts to treat the symptoms, however, not the dis­ease.

In like manner, businessmen will say of some government bu­reaucrat: "He never met a payroll in his life." The thought behind this caustic remark is that if the official had employed men, if he had been responsible for accumu­lating the money to pay them, if he had to provide goods and serv­ices to get the money, he would understand the problems of the businessman. And if he under­stood, he would be more lenient, would modify the rules, would make more tolerable decisions in the area of his authority. There are many variations on this theme. Has the building inspector ever built a house? Has the sanitation inspector ever done any plumb­ing? Has the labor arbitrator ever employed men? Has the Inter­state Commerce Commissioner ever run a railroad? The answers seem quite important to those who find themselves harassed in one way or another by government officials. Yet, they do not matter much. The underlying flaw of the system would still be there, though each of the above ques­tions was answered in the affirma­tive.

"Let George Be Responsible"

Superficial attempts to improve the situation have followed upon the superficial analyses of the problem. Most notably, there has been much talk in recent years about men behaving responsibly. Businessmen are exhorted to act "responsibly" to avoid the "ne­cessity" of government interven­tion. Labor union officials are begged to be "responsible" in their demands upon industry. Newspapers are expected to be "responsible" in what they report. College professors should be "re­sponsible" in their pronounce­ments. It is widely held that rights and privileges have corresponding responsibilities and that even "civil rights" advocates should be "responsible" in their advocacy. While such exhortation may have some effect on the behavior of men, it is more likely to impress children. It is a confidence game, an attempt to sway men to be­have contrary to the way they are impelled and encouraged to act by the established system.

In fact, we have widespread and pervasive organized irrespon­sibility in America. It makes little difference whether government bureaucrats have met a payroll, whether Interstate Commerce Commissioners have run a rail­road, whether labor arbitrators have employed men, and so on. No reorganization of the bureaucracy under the present system will go very far in making government officials accountable for what they do. In numerous cases the exer­cise of power has been cut off from the consequences of the ac­tion, and the use of authority has been disjoined from responsibility for results.

To understand this, it will be useful to get clearly in mind the nature of responsibility. The fol­lowing ideas are closely associated with responsibility: obligation, chargeable, accountable, liable, amenable, and answerable. Phil­osophically, the meaning of the word is derived from the idea that individuals respond to that which confronts them; they make choices and act; by choosing and acting, they become responsible for the results. For example, a man fathers a child; by so doing, he becomes responsible (is obligated) for the rearing of the child. Re­sponsibility is personal and indi­vidual; it has to do with cause and effect, with the relationship between what one has done and the consequences of it.

Individual, Social, Legal

There are three elements which, when taken together, reinforce one another and make for full-fledged responsibility. First, there is the individual’s sense of obliga­tion to meet his responsibilities. For example, a man buys some­thing for which he contracts to pay over a period of time. He has willingly entered into an agree­ment; he has obligated himself to make payments when they fall due. His sense of responsibility may lead him to meet the terms of his contract. Second, there is social responsibility. As to the particular debt in question, soci­ety would appear to have no inter­est. Yet it does. The individual in question has dealings with others. They are interested in knowing whether he pays his debts or not. If he does not meet his obligations promptly, this fail­ure will affect his credit rating (a social instrument), and men may cease dealing with him in any matter that involves time considerations. Thus does society hold men responsible. Third, there is legal responsibility. A creditor may go into court to get a judg­ment against the debtor. To en­force this judgment, the creditor may, in the final analysis, attach the debtor’s possessions, gar­nishee his wages, or throw him into bankruptcy (have him pro­claim his irresponsibility to the world). Analogous procedures must be in effect in all areas of life for full-fledged responsibility to exist.

A Slow Erosion

A generation has been brought up to believe that men are not responsible for their acts. This is an overstatement of the case, of course. Children are still taught that they are responsible — some­times and in certain areas — for their actions. Adults, some of them, still have a sense of respon­sibility and can be held socially and legally accountable for ac­tions. The truth is, however, that this responsibility is being eroded away. The erosion has occurred gradually and piecemeal in Amer­ica, for the most part. We are seldom told anything so general and all embracing as that men are not responsible for their acts. To do so would raise the question of the philosophical implications of such a position.

Rather, subtle doctrines of ir­responsibility have been spread over a period of several decades. Men are the products of their en­vironment, we are told. Responsi­bility is collective, another version goes; society is to blame. For more than a century the doctrine that institutions have corrupted men has had its advocates. Others hold that men are factors of their class or economic situation. So­cialists, following the lead of Marx, generally have held some variation of the doctrine that changes in technology produce tensions in society which result in the different views and actions.

In particular, we are told that criminals are the products of bad environment, infantile frustra­tions, social maladjustments, and so on. Labor violence is supposed to be the product of exploitation. Race riots, even an Attorney Gen­eral may proclaim, are the results of deprivation. Revolts, whether of college students or of would-be nations, are the consequences of oppression.

In short, we are led to believe by subtle explanations — and in particular instances which, when taken together, include almost all cases — that men are not respon­sible for what they do. It is not possible, of course, literally and consistently to apply these doc­trines in a society. Society cannot feel a sense of responsibility or guilt (for that matter, it cannot feel anything, for it is not sen­tient). The environment cannot be locked up. Technology cannot be reformed by a period in reform school. To say that entities of this character are responsible is the practical equivalent of saying that no one is responsible and nothing can be done about it. Those of the naturalistic persua­sion (popular among some intel­lectuals in the latter part of the nineteenth century) quite often drew just that conclusion from the doctrines.

Destroy and Rebuild

But the doctrines of individual nonresponsibility can be and have been applied selectively for attain­ing certain objectives. They are most effective ideas for destroying the social system of responsi­bility, and, for that matter, civili­zation itself. Such doctrines are effective in destroying the indi­vidual’s sense of responsibility (called guilt feelings in the argot of certain psychologists). If be­lieved, these doctrines inhibit the practice in society of men holding others responsible. And, of course, these doctrines of nonresponsi­bility can be used to remove legal responsibility. In short, they can be and have been used for destruc­tive purposes.

They have also been used as the basis for attempting to construct a new social system. That is, these doctrines have served as argu­ments for using government power to change the environment. Ef­forts at remolding institutions are spurred by those who believe such ideas. Collective practices have been advanced to replace the sys­tem of individual initiative and individual responsibility. The re­sult, however, is not a new system of responsibility. It is, instead, or­ganized irresponsibility, that is, irresponsibility institutionalized and made a part of the way of life of a people. Exhortations to peo­ple to be responsible are replacing the system of responsibility.

Some examples will demonstrate how this has occurred. It has been going on for several decades now and is gradually extended into more and more areas of life. One of the most conspicuous instances of organized irresponsibility is that of the so-called independent boards and agencies of the Fed­eral government, though those of many of the states are equally so. Among such organizations of the Federal government are: Inter­state Commerce Commission, Se­curities and Exchange Commis­sion, Federal Reserve Board, Na­tional Labor Relations Board, Fed­eral Power Commission, and so on. Of a similar character so far as responsibility is concerned are the government corporations such as the Tennessee Valley Authority.

Powerful Agencies

There are several angles from which to view the irresponsibility of those within these organiza­tions. First, they are government agencies. Those who exercise the powers of government appropriate monies most of which are not their own. They pass laws which apply to the population generally, not just to themselves. They make war and peace, make treaties of alliance and commerce, employ workers, have charge of an exten­sive constabulary, and may use force to obtain obedience to their commands. All of these powers af­fect the lives of many more than those few who actually exercise them.

In the United States, many de­vices were adopted to make those in government responsible or to give them as little leeway as pos­sible to act irresponsibly. Perhaps the most important of these was a written constitution in which the powers of government are enumerated and government is specifically forbidden to enter cer­tain fields of operation. The pow­ers of government were divided among three branches so that quest for power by any person or branch would be supposed to be negated by the jealousy of other branches. Those who appropriated monies were made responsible to the people from whom the monies came by being made subject to election at frequent intervals. Those in government were sup­posed to be subject to the laws passed, and those who execute the laws and spend the monies were to be accountable for their stew­ardship to Congress and to the courts.

Interstate Commerce

The Interstate Commerce Com­mission was the first of the "in­dependent" agencies organized to evade many of the devices for holding responsible those who govern. Since its founding in the 1880′s, its power has been in­creased to include setting mini­mum and maximum transporta­tion rates, deciding what services must be performed or may be dis­continued, approving or disapprov­ing mergers, and so forth. Legis­lative, executive, and judicial pow­ers, rather than being separated, have been blended in one body, so that the quest for additional power by this organization is not at the expense of other political branches but of the owners of transport facilities. Congress au­thorized the Commission, but it operates "independently" of Con­gress. The Executive appoints the members, but they serve for a pe­riod of years and are therefore "independent" of the Executive. In short, the Commission — and others like it — is not responsible to the electorate. No election has ever been held where the actions of boards and commissions were sufficiently at issue to say that they have been either popularly approved or disapproved. Nor is one likely to be. These agencies are "independent," independent of the people — that is, politically ir­responsible.

In the final analysis, though, the Interstate Commerce Commis­sion — and all who exercise like powers — would be irresponsible even if it were a committee of Congress or a department of the Executive. The actions themselves are irresponsible. When the Com­mission sets a rail rate, its mem­bers are not responsible for op­erating a railroad on the revenue derived. When it prescribes that services must be rendered at a particular station, it is not respon­sible for providing these services. If the regulated company goes bankrupt, the Commission does not have to pay the bills. The mem­bers of the Commission can make decisions with virtual financial and legal impunity. They are not responsible — even when they cir­cumspectly refrain from harmful decisions; the transport companies, in such case, have only es­caped by chance.

Degrees of Irresponsibility Among Various Agencies

The same charge of irresponsi­bility is valid against other gov­ernment boards, commissions, and corporations in varying degrees. The members of the Federal Re­serve Board cannot be sued, in consequence of their monetary manipulations, for the loss of value of the money which people hold or have owed to them. The Securities and Exchange Commis­sion will not make good losses suf­fered on the stock market as a result of its action or inaction. The National Labor Relations Board does not pay those workers to whom it awards back pay. The board which controls the Tennes­see Valley Authority neither pays for the work it hires to be per­formed nor does it make good any losses incurred by the Authority.

It should be pointed out, how­ever, that the boards which con­trol government corporations do have some responsibilities. If there are degrees of irresponsi­bility, the board which directs the Tennessee Valley Authority is not as irresponsible as the Interstate Commerce Commission. The mem­bers of the board, or their agents, do undertake to provide services, do meet payrolls, do enter into contracts, and are in some ways accountable for their actions. Governmental irresponsibility is widespread, and does not neces­sarily involve violations of the principle of the separation of powers. The enactment and rais­ing of the minimum wage has been irresponsible. By this action, Congress compels employers to pay a certain wage, but it takes no responsibility for this. That is, Congress does not raise the money to meet the payroll. If men lose their jobs because the employers cannot pay these wages, the in­dividual members of Congress do not undertake to provide them with employment by paying them out of pocket. Nor, if the em­ployer goes out of business, can he sue Congress for damages. Equally irresponsible are Congressional rulings regarding hours of labor.

Who Pays for Mistakes?

Something should be said un­der the heading of government financial responsibility for what its agents do. The United States government and the governments of states do engage in numerous business undertakings such as building roads, maintaining post offices, providing education, set­ting up corporations, and so forth. Government agencies are not lia­ble for payment of damages in the same way that private corporations, partnerships, and individu­als are. Governments can be sued, of course, with their permission. The winner of a suit against some government may recover damages. But there the similarity with pri­vate suits ends. Congress may ap­propriate money to pay damages, but the individual members of Congress do not pay for this; at least, they pay no more than any other taxpayer. This is another way of saying that the govern­ment is not responsible for injury done to others. It merely passes on the claim to the taxpayers. By contrast, private companies and individuals are responsible for in­juries done.

Federal Aid Uncontrolled

Government responsibility is often attenuated, at best, but many of those who have labored to get government involved in more and more things have also worked to remove the last vestiges of responsibility. The public schools afford an example. It is a common saying that politics ought to be kept out of the schools. If those who say this meant that gov­ernment should get out of the business of education, it would make sense. But that is not their meaning. They favor government support of education but do not wish political intrusion in the management or control of the schools. They would have the pop­ulace support the schools but deny the people a voice in the manage­ment of the schools. For politics is the means by which popular consent is given and denied in America. Those who want to keep politics out of the schools want government support without gov­ernment control, whether they know it or not. In short, they pro­pose to make the public schools completely irresponsible.

Long strides have been taken toward making those who teach in schools and colleges responsible to no one. This has been accom­plished to considerable extent un­der the doctrine of academic free­dom and the practice of tenure. These two things combined are supposed to leave the teacher free to say and teach what he will (theoretically, though not prac­tically, bounded by a restriction that it be within the area of his competency). He is responsible to no one for what he teaches.

Other Abuses of Privilege

Irresponsibility abounds in America today. Aid to Dependent Children permits men to father children and women to give birth to them without assuming the full responsibilities of rearing them. Various government agencies re­lieve children of the responsi­bility for caring for aged or infirm parents. So-called civil rights leaders preach hatred of men, practice trespass, and encourage the destruction of property with­out being held responsible for what they do. Those dependent upon government for a livelihood are permitted to vote, and thus to vote themselves benefits at some­one else’s expense. Union leaders press for wage increases which they do not have to pay. Congress votes increase after increase in the Federal debt, with no provi­sion for paying it. It has been years since any reduction of the debt has been made. Policemen are not held responsible for vio­lating the rights of the accused; instead, criminals are turned loose by higher courts when their rights are said to have been vio­lated. Thus, irresponsibility is compounded. Movements are afoot to subvert established political processes by granting to groups power unrestricted by popular consent. Examples of this are ci­vilian review boards and civil rights groups and organizations being given Federal monies to dispense. Irresponsibility is high­ly organized, vociferous, and ram­pant in the land.

There is a saying that goes like this: "What you do speaks so loud that I cannot hear what you say." This certainly applies to those who admonish us to be re­sponsible today. We have been busily removing the supports to responsibility while shouting ever more loudly that men should be responsible. Responsibility de­pends upon a very real nexus be­tween cause and effect, between actions and consequences, between accomplishments and rewards, be­tween what we do and our ac­countability for it, not upon a spurious indoctrination of a sense of responsibility. "Independent" boards and commissions cannot be made responsible by proclamation, nor labor leaders by acclamation, nor civil rights workers by as­severation, nor teachers by incul­cation, nor parents by vocalizing about it.

Penalties Removed

A confusion of terminology hides the truth from us. In a vague sort of way, the admoni­tions to boards and commissions are to be circumspect in what they do, to labor leaders to be moderate in their demands, to civil rights advocates to be gentle in their ac­tions. It would be as logical to admonish thieves to take only a moderate amount of money or goods, to admonish assaulters to exert gentle persuasions, or to ad­monish extortionists to be circum­spect in their demands — while removing all penalties for crimi­nal behavior. For we have made long strides toward separating cause from effect, power from re­sponsibility, and actions from their consequences. We are trying to make the individual’s spurious sense of responsibility do the work formerly done by individual con­science, social responsibility, and legal accountability.

The Consequences of the Irresponsible Way of Life

It requires no major gift of prophecy to foresee the outcome of organized irresponsibility. In­deed, some of the consequences are already with us, and it is nec­essary only to extend them in other cases. Boards and commis­sions establish inflexibility in the economy, on the one hand, and produce uncertainty on the other, making businesses difficult to op­erate, resulting in high prices and poor service. Labor unions para­lyze industrial centers and are re­strained from extending this to the country as a whole only by a dubious sense of responsibility or the threat of force and involun­tary servitude. Academicians fill children’s minds with notions that have been tested by neither reason nor evidence. Government action produces unemployment by mini­mum wages and tries to correct this by heavy doses of inflation. Violence and destruction in the cities, particularly in summer, makes life increasingly perilous and property insecure.

Freedom becomes license with­out responsibility. To put it an­other way, there can be no free­dom without responsibility. No man is free when he can have his life taken by murderers who will not be held responsible by the courts, when his ownership of property is vitiated by the control of those who do not receive the consequences of their actions, when his children may be taught any doctrine without his approval or consent, when the actions of others are restrained only by their inward determination to restrain them. Free men are responsible men, else every man’s freedom is potentially a trespass upon every other man’s.

Nor can civilization survive the constant strain put upon it by or­ganized irresponsibility. The de­sire to exercise power without re­sponsibility may not be the oldest sin, but it is one of the earliest according to the Bible. After Cain had slain Abel, he wished to avoid the responsibility for it. The de­sire is there, but the nation that succors it wills its own destruc­tion. Men lose their integrity and are corrupted by organized irres­ponsibility. Policemen lose their zeal to apprehend criminals when those whom they catch are turned loose. Businessmen turn to lobbying, to influence buying, to the quest for special privilege when their survival depends upon it. Men devise subtle ways to live off the labor of others when govern­ment becomes the bounty giver. Workers are seduced into slipshod work and malingering when they can use the threat of violence to hold their jobs. Men gather in mobs to hand out rough and un­even justice when the courts no longer serve society. When men become acclimated to irresponsi­bility, they do so by becoming weak-willed and irresolute. As children, they fall prey to the strong man who will restore order by intemperate but widespread use of force.

The remedy for this distemper is what it has always been. It lies, first, in the recognition that men are responsible for their acts. Second, it can be developed by inculcating a sense of per­sonal responsibility in individuals. Third, society sustains it by re­wards and punishments handed out accordingly as one has been responsible or irresponsible. Last­ly, men must be held legally ac­countable for what they do, and must not be permitted to engage in actions for which there eon be no accounting.



A Paradox

Many persons are so reluctant to become involved in other peo­ple’s affairs that they will stand by and see a fellow man beaten or even killed without intervening. Yet those very same non-Samaritans readily join in great numbers to make other people’s decisions for them, meddle in their business, force them to act "for their own good."

JAMES C. PATRICK, Decatur, Illinois


March 1967

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