Pitfalls of Shared Responsibility
By Tibor Machan - April 20, 2011

President Barrack Obama asserted in a recent speech dealing with the country's enormous debt that what the country needs is to live by an ancient principle, namely, "the principle of shared responsibility." He invoked this in his defense of his championing of the increased extortion of the resources of the wealthy, those who earn $250K or more per year. Why this "principle" should be invoked he didn't say – he seemed to think it's obvious.

Frankly the details are not what's important here – what is is that extortion from rich and poor alike is evil and destructive to the country's economy. In addition, the idea of unassumed shared responsibility for economic mismanagement (either by individuals who ought to care for their household finances or by public officials who ought to care for the government's finances) is a very harmful one. Shared responsibility applies only where those who are to share have freely volunteered to do so. I am not morally and should not be legally authorized to conscript my neighbors to share the household debts I have assumed for myself in, say, my repeated refinancing of my mortgage.

It is interesting that a good many policy wonks complain when companies dump their waste into the public sphere – the air mass, rivers, lakes, or oceans. And they are right – such dumping is intrusive, a violation of the property rights of those whose sphere has been used without their consent. The idea of sharing the responsibilities assumed by various public officials in the name of the citizenry is no different. Some, very few, public expenses are, of course, the responsibility of all citizens – national defense, maintaining the legal infrastructure of the country, etc. But when public officials spend resources on what they deem to be important projects, such as a bridge in their district or a dam or a school, these are not shared responsibilities by any stretch of the imagination. These are the responsibilities of those individuals who elected to assume them. The rest of us, who have assumed different responsibilities, are not to be imposed upon by making us all share the burdens of fulfilling such responsibilities.

There is a different ancient principle that President Obama ought to consider before he imposes responsibilities on those who didn't consent to assuming them. It is "the tragedy of the commons." Perhaps the best statement of this principles comes from the ancient Greek philosopher, Aristotle, who pointed out that:

"[T]hat which is common to the greatest number has the least care bestowed upon it. Every one thinks chiefly of his own, hardly at all of the common interest; and only when he is himself concerned as an individual. For besides other considerations, everybody is more inclined to neglect the duty which he expects another to fulfill; as in families many attendants are often less useful than a few." (Politics, 1262a30-37)

This principle is widely embraced by environmentalists who realize that when spheres are commonly owned, they fall into neglect. The same holds for shared responsibilities – people tend to assume that others will fulfill them and they do not need to worry. Even more importantly, it is nearly impossible to determine for a huge population in a country such as the USA just what is to be shared and what is not. Is one to share the responsibility for another citizen's crimes, debts, children, etc.? Why, if you decided not to have any children, must you shoulder the responsibility of supporting them? Why share the debt that others have assumed unless you are a close friend or associate?

No, the idea President Obama floated in his discussion of how to handle the enormous national debt is a nonstarter. And the idea of coercing those making $250K or more to shoulder most of it is obscene. No one is going to pay attention to balancing his or her budget if others will be forced to pay one's debts. It is also a terrible practice to support by the leader of a supposedly free country in which citizens may not be punished unless they have been shown to have committed a crime.

In fact, all this sharing of responsibility amounts to letting off the hook all those who acted irresponsibly in their finances, private or public.

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