“I have no fear that the result of our experiment will be that men may be trusted to govern themselves without a master.”
- Thomas Jefferson, 1787
“As to the right of men to act anywhere according to their pleasure, without any moral tie, no such right exists... nor is it conceivable how any man can pursue a considerable course of action without its having some effect upon others; or, of course, without producing some degree of responsibility for his conduct.”
- Edmund Burke, 1796
“If any would not work, neither should he eat.”
- The Bible, II Thessalonians 3:10
(also a rule of early American settlers)
Soon after Hurricane Katrina, Pascagoula building officer Steve Mitchell was quoted in news reports as saying, "We've always taken the opinion that outside help is nice, and we appreciate it. But we don't want to depend on it." Gulfport Mayor Brent Warr, having been in office only a few weeks before the hurricane, said, "Sitting in a well, complaining because no one will throw you a rope, is not going to get you anywhere. Instead, you climb out. You hope someone gives you a hand and pulls you. But either way, we're getting out of the well."
That attitude, shown by so many people affected by the hurricane, enabled the critical needs of Mississippians to be taken care of immediately after the storm. People didn’t wait for government to save them. They helped themselves, and they helped each other.
If only people would think that way all the time.
Americans dubbed “The Greatest Generation” were marked by their self-reliance, ingenuity, and unrelenting work ethic. Freedom, to these great Americans, meant the ability to work hard to provide for their family, free from dependence on anyone. Today, a growing number of Americans are largely content to depend on an ever-increasing array of government programs for their income, housing, healthcare, education, and other essentials. Food, shelter, and comfort are no longer seen as the product of hard work and personal responsibility, but are instead viewed as rights, or entitlements, that government is obligated to provide.
The thinking goes something like this: “If I have a problem, it has to be somebody else’s fault; it couldn’t be my own.” This attitude has led to an epidemic of civil lawsuits aimed at fixing blame and demanding outlandish amounts of money for events that could have been avoided if the person had simply acted responsibly.
Government was never intended to save people from their own decisions. When individuals give government the power to solve personal problems, they also yield their freedom and dignity. Abraham Lincoln put it this way: “You cannot help men permanently by doing for them what they could and should do for themselves.”
In recent years, taxpayers have been forced to rescue corporations from the consequences of their leaders' decisions. These bailouts perpetuate irresponsibility by accommodating it.
Government should work to protect citizens from criminals, foreign invaders, and those who would intentionally harm them—but not to protect them from themselves. We must work to restore a proper balance between personal responsibility and the legitimate role of government.
Public officials who live out this principle by taking responsibility for their own actions and expecting others to do the same will govern with humility and restraint.