The Nation : Confronting the Matter of Personal Responsibility

James A. Baker III was the 61st secretary of state

America's elites have decided that personal responsibility's time has come. Major print and electronic media feature virtue as the subject of cover articles and lead stories. In the political arena, Democrats from the President on down, long reluctant to embrace an issue more often associated with Republicans, can hardly step to a podium without invoking values.

This public focus is welcome, as well as overdue. But, in truth, personal responsibility's time never went.

The vast majority of Americans of all faiths, races and political persuasions try today, just as they always have, to live according to standards of behavior as old as civilization. They obey the law, work hard, respect their neighbors and raise their children to do the same. For five years or more, almost unnoticed by the media, local communities have been working to return character to our schools and streets.

The reason is simple: According to a recent poll, 73% of Americans worry that the nation is experiencing a moral decline. They are right to be concerned.

The symptoms of America's social decay hardly bear repeating. The explosive rise of illegitimacy since 1960 has plunged millions into material poverty and moral dependence. An epidemic of crime has created a climate of fear in many neighborhoods and schools. Much of our popular culture is dominated by promiscuity, violence--or both. Worse yet, our judicial and education systems often seem helpless to stem the rising tide of social decay.

The manifestations of America's crisis in values may be complex. But its cause is clear. It embodies the idea that somebody else is responsible for our actions and reflects a rejection of personal responsibility.

The price of this denial of personal responsibility is staggering. By some estimates, crime alone costs the American economy more than $600 billion a year. Substance abuse and illegitimacy add countless billions more. But the human cost paid in death, ruined lives and dashed hopes is far higher. And it falls, in cruel disproportion, on our most vulnerable.

It would be folly, however, to identify today's crisis in values solely with America's most disadvantaged, the "underclass." Whatever the outcome of the O.J. Simpson case--and it is important to recall his presumption of innocence under law--Nicole Brown Simpson's history of abuse at her husband's hands reminds us that domestic violence crosses economic lines. Denial of responsibility has tainted all levels of American society, especially its young. Teen-age drug and alcohol abuse are major problems in the poshest of suburbs. Sexual promiscuity is not limited to the inner city--nor is the disease and illegitimacy that go with it.

America's crisis in values is so pervasive that no single approach can address it. Public policy can and indeed must play a part. But so, too, must community action and individual engagement.

At the government level, statehouses are leading the way. Legislatures across the nation have passed measures--including mandatory sentencing and "three strikes, you're out" provisions for repeat violent offenders--that will help put the onus of crime where it belongs: on the criminal. Republican governors in Massachusetts, Wisconsin and New Jersey are pushing innovative welfare reforms designed to return responsibility to the system through strict work requirements.

Typically, Washington's record is more mixed. A tough crime bill has still not received congressional approval, because of efforts by liberal House Democrats to scuttle it. The President's much-touted plan to "end welfare as we know it" is short on both details and teeth--it won't even apply to two-thirds of the 5 million American families now on welfare. The Administration's health-care plan--with employer mandates, price controls and a huge bureaucracy--marks a step away from personal responsibility and toward the "government knows best" philosophy that landed America in so much trouble in the first place.

But communities are not waiting for Washington. Groups like the Character Counts Coalition, representing 27 organizations and led by actor Tom Selleck and former Rep. Barbara Jordan, are working to put personal responsibility back where it belongs: at the top of the nation's youth agenda. School boards are considering ways to strengthen curricula, with a new emphasis on old virtues like trustworthiness, respect and citizenship.

These local efforts don't begin and end in the classroom. The idea of community service for young people--of giving to, as well as taking from, society--is being put into practice around the country. So, too, are innovative programs aimed at preventing teen-age pregnancy through responsible behavior, before it produces more fatherless families and poverty.

Still, more than legislation and community action will be needed if the slide in American morals and morale is to be stopped--much less reversed. Here, the individual as role model remains key.

This must begin at the top, with public figures. True, scandal among the elite, whether in sports, the arts or politics, is nothing new. Nor is the general public's fascination with it. If scandal becomes widespread enough, however, it can begin to fray a society's moral fabric.

This is what the "character" question is all about: not so much the character of a single individual, but the standard of laxity--whether in terms of individual integrity or personal veracity--that he or she sets for society at large. Yes, public figures have a right to privacy. But they also have a responsibility to serve as models of personal conduct.

The current crisis in values reaches back to the 1960s, when cultural relativism, moral permissiveness and a willingness to blame society for individual behavior began to shape elite opinion and undermine the concept of personal responsibility. In the years since, there were those who recognized these trends and called for remedial action. These critics, usually conservative, were condemned for what liberals called their intolerance, alarmism and, above all, lack of compassion.

Nothing could be farther from the truth. Now as then, the conservative critique of American society is grounded in a profound sympathy for society's less fortunate. But that sympathy is tempered by two truths.

The first is the demonstrable inability of government programs to serve as cure-alls for social ills. Indeed, some of the most ambitious Great Society programs of the 1960s, most notably in welfare, actually hurt those they intended to help. The second is the link between personal responsibility and individual opportunity. The "American dream"--of a rewarding job, a home and a family and community to take pride in--cannot be conferred by government fiat. It must be earned, as it has been by generations of Americans, through diligence and honesty--in short, by personal responsibility.

America began its disastrous experiment in social permissiveness 30 years ago. It may take another three decades to reverse the process.

One thing, however, will ensure that we fail in this endeavor: a general retreat from the public sphere. Faced with societal decline, there is a great urge to withdraw into family and career. Ironically, this temptation is felt most strongly by the majority of Americans for whom personal responsibility is an important part of their lives. We often hear the question, "Where are America's role models?" "Behind locked doors and barred windows," is too often the answer.

Signs of a turn away from civic life remain strong. Voter participation, despite its upturn in the 1992 election, continues down. Disillusion with public institutions is at an all-time high. Washington, in particular, has become a byword for feckless action and fatuous rhetoric. Ultimately, however, attempts to escape the moral crisis confronting America will be futile. Social decay is intruding on our streets, in our schools and on our TV screens. Engagement by individual Americans remains crucial. And it must be on the widest possible front: in local communities, church groups, civic organizations and the broader political arena.

Without sustained engagement by Americans, the current focus on virtue and values could prove just this month's media cause celebre. America cannot allow this. Personal responsibility is what made us a strong nation. A continuing crisis in values will reduce us to a weak one.*

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