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Is personal responsibility passé?

ALEXANDRIA, La. (BP)–Responsibility. It’s a word that is being bandied about quite a bit these days. It’s a word that once defined a person who embraced hard things if they were the right things. Personal responsibility, it was once understood, implied self-sacrifice if the need arose.

I learned about the nature of personal responsibility, not from the dictionary, but from my parents. They not only spoke about responsibility, but they lived it.

“Do what you said you would do,” is how my father summed up personal responsibility. The application of responsibility in our family meant that we lived within our means. It also meant that bills were always paid on time and in full.

My parents always saw that our needs were met. However, my brothers and me — there were three of us — did not always get the things we wanted. Many times we were told “no” in reference to some request that was deemed a non-necessity.

To my mom and dad the word “no” was not just an aspect of good parenting, it was many times motivated by a sense of responsibility.

I shared a room with one of my older brothers because my parents could not afford a home that would allow each of us to have our own. Five of us shared one bathroom. “Thank the Lord I am the only female in the bunch,” my mom would say on occasion, an obvious reference that girls have a tendency to spend a bit more time in the bathroom.

It was a sense of personal responsibility that drove my parents to work hard and, on occasion, to work more than one job. Whatever it took, my mom and dad provided for the family and met their obligations to others.

Personal responsibility seems to have been redefined. No longer does it even hint at the implication of hardship or sacrifice. The new responsibility, ironically, is self-centered. Responsibility has morphed into the idea of acting in one’s own self interest with little or no regard for anyone, much less society at large.

The only responsibility that many seem to acknowledge is a responsibility to personal satisfaction and happiness.

A few years ago, I was counseling a couple who was in trouble financially. When we began to list expenses in order to find money to reallocate to contractual obligations — better known as bills — several non-essential items appeared. Things like cable television, movies, lattes, magazine subscriptions, manicures, golf and other entertainment expenses constituted quite a bit of the couple’s monthly expenditures.

When I suggested that some, and perhaps even all, of the non-essential expenses could be reallocated and put toward meeting contractual obligations, you would have thought I had ask them to sacrifice their first-born on an altar of fire. I was told in no uncertain terms that they would not forgo their well-deserved pleasures to help pay bills. Needless to say, the counseling session came to an abrupt halt.

With the passage of the stimulus package, the concept of personal responsibility could well disappear altogether. Contained within the package is legislation that would allow individuals, or couples, who file for bankruptcy to have a judge modify the terms of their mortgages, even having the principle of the loan lowered. The proposed legislation has been dubbed “cramdown.”

The most onerous provision, to me, is allowing a judge the power to reduce the principle of a mortgage. When the legislation was being debated in the House of Representatives, one representative, supportive of the measure, said that lenders would just have to eat the difference between the original loan amount and the lowered principle.

If “cramdown” becomes reality in our country, you can rest assured that the concept of personal responsibility will decline even more. Why continue to do hard things and sacrifice when you can file for bankruptcy and have your principle of your mortgage significantly reduced?

The new definition of responsibility bears no resemblance to the concept my parents embraced. Their understanding of responsibility emphasized sacrifice and doing hard things if they were the right things. The new concept of responsibility is heavy on self-interest. The former made our country resilient and strong; the latter could be our undoing.
Kelly Boggs is a weekly columnist for Baptist Press and editor of the Baptist Message (www.baptistmessage.com), newsjournal of the Louisiana Baptist Convention.

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  • Kelly Boggs