What is wrong with "personal responsibility"?

As a university tutor, I read a lot of scholarship critiquing traditional and digital media from a Marxist perspective. Most striking is the somewhat baffling reiteration that “personal responsibility” is a bad thing.

Let me elaborate via particularly pertinent example. In 2009 the scholars Laurie Oullette and James Hay published a paper proposing that reality television programs are a symptom of our neo-liberal context. They argue that the narratives of programs such as The Biggest Loser and Queer Eye for the Straight Guy effectively instruct people on how to modify their conduct and assume personal responsibility for their health, their finances and general welfare. The “problem” identified by Oullette and Hay is that these responsibilities were once, under pre-1980 Keynesian economic regimes, assumed by the State (presumably ensuring universal access to key services). According to their reckoning, the ascension of neoliberal economics has led to the shrinking of governments - through the privatisation of formerly public assets, deregulation of the market, and the emergence of public-private partnerships to deliver key public services - and citizens must now take responsibility for their own welfare.

There are of course a number of problems with this particular proposal. First is the misinformation regarding the “shrinking” of the State through privatisation and deregulation. While the trend has certainly been to privatise formerly public companies, assets and services, the size and spending of governments have grown exponentially in the same period. This is demonstrated by a 2008 study of the expansion of the Australian government since 1972, as reflected in the number of policy interventions (which doubled between 1997-8 and 2007-8), increased taxes and spending, and decreased savings; trends that have further accelerated in the last four years.

A second important example of scholarly misinformation is the tendency to collapse of the distinction between the values and practices associated with libertarianism and neoliberalism. By and large anarcho-libertarians advocate the universal adoption of principles such as non-aggression, which logically requires individuals to accept personal responsibility for their decisions and wellbeing, and the concomitant abolition of governments on the basis that they are the foremost perpetrators of violence. While often linked to such values via the use of key terms such as deregulation and personal responsibility, neoliberalism ultimately borrows this rhetoric to mask the growth of the military-industrial complex, and its deployment to criminalise, punish and tax an ever-increasing number of citizens and activities. Moreover, policy interventions, such as IP, are more often designed to bolster already existing monopolies rather than liberate trade.

Most staggering however, is that in a rush to advocate the governmental redistribution of private wealth as the most appropriate strategy to overcome systemic inequality and injustice (undeniably well-intentioned causes), there is a tendency in academia to dismiss, out of hand, the very notion of “personal responsibility” as bad. It is a “neo-liberal” value and therefore evil.

The repetitive and uncritical characterisation of personal responsibility as an undesirable phenomenon, within university scholarship, is nonsensical to say the least. Without the very basic expectation that all individuals assume at least a modicum of personal responsibility, the entire fabric of society would disintegrate. Students must complete their work to pass courses, employees must be productive to generate income for themselves and their employers, and murderers need to be held accountable for the lives that they have stolen. For every decision that we do and don’t make, there are consequences. Needless to say that it is more than a little ironic to suggest that politicians, those individuals most notorious for abusing power for personal gain, be entrusted as the first and last bastion of social responsibility.


There seems to me a certain undercurrent of fear that pervades such scholarship. This leads me to question why the prospect of personal responsibility posses such a grand threat for these intellectual giants. Is it a fear of society being plunged into a post-apocalyptic hell when our moral compass is no longer centralised and institutionalised? Does it stem from a genuine concern for those lower down the socio-economic and intellectual ladder, those who apparently lack the necessary moral and intellectual fibre to avoid the undesirable consequences of poor life choices? Or is it perhaps, the prospect of having to bear the brunt of responsibility for their own life choices? For instance, the fear that when given the choice, those who toil for their hard earned dollars are unlikely to accept responsibility for the taxes that pay the wages of those ensconced in their ivory towers.

For more info see:
Kirsty Laurie and Jason McDonald "A perspective on trends in Australian government spending" 
http://lowpollutionfuture.treasury.gov.au/documents/1352/PDF/03_spending_growth.pdf
Oullette and Hay "Makeover television, governmentality and the good citizen."

Amanda Malel Trevisanut is currently working as an academic tutor and research assistant. Your comments and thoughts are most welcome. You can contact her at amandatrevisanut@gmail.com

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