When a neighbor is in need, who bears responsibility to
help? Increasingly in America, responsibility for taking care of
others is placed at the foot of government. In a culture that
speaks about desires in terms of needs, needs in terms of rights,
and rights in terms of entitlements, government is considered
obligated to provide citizens more and more. When people need
assistance, therefore, the first place many think to turn is
This does not necessarily mean that people are less generous or
willing to help others than they once were. Rather, it suggests
that a cultural shift has taken place concerning where
responsibility for others is seen to lie. Today, if neighbors or
local congregations reach out to those in need, they are thought to
act out of the voluntary kindness of their hearts. It is assumed
that government takes care of the needy out of the obligation of
This lopsided conception of government responsibility is
morally problematic, socially debilitating, and financially
unsustainable. Government is not solely-- or even
primarily--responsible for taking care of our neighbors. That
responsibility belongs to each one of us as participants in a
variety of relationships and overlapping communities.
What Is Responsibility?
The word responsibility implies an ability to
respond to someone or something that makes a claim on us.
Bosses make claims upon the time and the area of focus of their
employees, and children represent claims upon the attention and
resources of their parents. To be responsible is to be answerable
for action; when we recognize a valid or authoritative call to do
something, we have a duty to respond-- that is, we have a
Responsibility hinges not only on a legitimate call for action,
but also on the ability or capacity of the responsible agent to
satisfy that call. Generally, people can be held responsible only
for actions that they are able to perform or for circumstances that
are under their control. Employees are usually given responsibility
for tasks they are deemed capable of performing--i.e., that lie
within their skill set. Similarly, parents bear responsibility
for their children, in part because their natural love and affinity
for their offspring generally enable parents to provide better care
than a stranger could provide.
Determining responsibility for a person in need therefore
requires asking at least two questions: "To whom can he or she make
a valid call for help?" and "Who is best able to meet his or her
needs?" Responsibility usually does not lie in one single
institution or one set of relationships. A family certainly
bears responsibility to care for one of its members, but so also do
friends, fellow church members, and neighbors. These are
relationships in which people represent moral claims on--or call
forth legitimate action from--each other.
Community Membership and Moral
We recognize another person's moral claim on us as we understand
him or her to be a member of a community to which we also belong.
We are bound to fellow members by the common purpose around which
our community unites, and we rely on each other to achieve shared
goals and goods. That is, we make claims upon each other as we work
together to fulfill the goal our community exists to achieve. This
is as true for communities that we join voluntarily as for those we
do not, for sports teams and service organizations as for families
and nations of origin.
Insofar as my young neighbor and I happen to belong to several
of the same communities, I am obligated to help her on more than
one basis. In addition to our shared humanity, I am a resident in
her neighborhood and a citizen in the same town, state, and nation.
I may also be a member of her church, and my son may be in her
class at school. When popular debate highlights a problem and turns
immediately to calling for federal or state government remedy,
it overlooks these primary relationships and forms of
Where Does Responsibility Lie?
The different communities in which we participate bind us,
in different ways and to different degrees, to other members. How
should these various communities be ordered or ranked in terms
of levels of responsibility? When a child is in need, to which
community or set of relationships should we turn first for
Responsibility begins closest to home--that is, among those who
know children the best, care for them daily, and are bound to them
through natural ties (i.e., their families). But what if families
can't meet those needs on their own?
Consider the real-life case in Prince George's County, Maryland,
of a young boy named Deamonte Driver. Deamonte was 12 years
old when he developed an abscessed tooth in early 2007.
Deamonte's low-income single mother was eligible for Medicaid,
but some sort of "bureaucratic foul-up" prevented access to it.
Instead, Deamonte was taken to the emergency room, where he was
medicated for pain and sinusitis and sent home.
What he actually needed was to have the abscessed tooth pulled
by an oral surgeon. The cost of the procedure was reportedly
estimated to be $80. Because he did not receive this procedure,
bacteria from the abscess spread to Deamonte's brain and he
Public debate surrounding this case has focused almost
exclusively on how federal programs should be changed to
ensure a safety net to "catch" children in Deamonte Driver's
situation. But a prior question is why there were not others in
this boy's life to whom his mother could turn for such basic help.
As the tragic results show, the Driver family needed someone who
knew them and felt responsible for acting on Deamonte's behalf for
a different degree of care. A government safety net seeks to
provide social justice, but it is not capable of providing personal
attention, on-the-ground instincts, or the flexibility sometimes
required in an emergency situation.
It would be all the more tragic if government programs or
regulations actually served as a disincentive for individuals
to assume responsibility for Deamonte or if the fear of lawsuits
and other legal regulations inhibited doctors from operating pro
bono. It would be a detriment to our sense of mutual
responsibility for one another if the continued recourse to
federal programs for remedies caused Americans to view their tax
payments-- which fund government social service programs-- as their
contribution to helping people in need. Even the knowledge that
such federal programs exist, regardless of their actual
effectiveness, may cause some to conclude that the ball is in
somebody else's court.
It is only when local communities--the kind based on personal
interaction, face-to-face relationships, common action, and
shared purpose--fail to provide for people's needs that government
responsibility comes into play.
Individualism Leads to Increased
Responsibility for Government
One of the reasons government is thought to have so much
responsibility for the well-being of citizens is that, in modern
Western culture, people are viewed more in terms of their isolated
autonomy than in terms of their social relationships. In other
words, we are prone to think of human beings as self-standing
individuals rather than as persons-in-community.
But persons are not islands, and we deny a fundamental
aspect of their humanity when we approach them as such. Everyone
exists in some form of relationship to others; every person shares
in the human community and, therefore, has basic moral obligations
toward other human beings.
Ironically, a hyper-individualistic approach to autonomy
actually leads to a more powerful, centralized government. The
expanding state and the stand-alone individual seem to go hand in
hand: Because we tend to perceive others primarily as
isolated, autonomous selves rather than as members of
families, neighborhoods, friendship circles, or religious
congregations, it is easier for us to think of their claims being
met by government.
The government's role is that of exercising public judgment in
terms of justice. The government should relate to people
according to its particular role, which is upholding justice, not
parenting or treating illnesses. That is, the government stands in
relation to its people as an institution of public justice,
not as a parent or doctor or friend.
Likewise, persons stand in relation to the government as
political citizens, not primarily as sons or daughters or patients.
In this relationship, the kind of claim one rightfully makes on the
government is one of equal standing and protection under law. The
government's responsibility is not to do good whenever good
can be done for somebody, but to act when injustice would
America's founders expected various societal institutions to
exercise proper authority in meeting their members' needs,
beginning with forms of association that fostered "that
fellow-feeling…that we generally have for those with whom we
are connected and acquainted." Civic government acts to
remedy injustices brought about by the action or inaction of those
institutions. When such institutions as families,
churches, schools, and neighborhood associations treat each
other and their members unjustly, the government has
responsibility to judge, punish, and prescribe a remedy.
Mutual responsibility is essential within a healthy society,
especially a free, democratic one. The more people feel that they
can trust and rely upon each other, the less they will need to turn
to government for care--or to remedy injustice.
An important step in preventing future tragedies like Deamonte
Driver's therefore includes working to restore a sense of personal
accountability and moral obligation for others at a local, personal
level. This, in turn, entails reforming policies that both
discourage people from taking personal action and encourage a
mindset of government as the primary responsible provider of
Government does not have a monopoly on responsibility for
meeting people's needs. However, government has increasingly become
the primary default setting when discussion turns to who is
obligated to care for others. The result is less personal and
efficient care for individuals and a weakening of our social
fabric of responsibility and sense of moral obligation to one
another through a variety of relationships.
Public officials can help to promote a healthy society--and
government--by acknowledging the responsibility that families,
neighborhoods, churches, and similar institutions have for their
members. Policy should preserve and protect such institutions, and
policymakers should make arguments that recognize the social and
relational nature of the citizens within those institutions.
Moreover, they should promote policies that remove barriers and
disincentives for the members of local forms of association to
act in personal ways to solve problems.
Ryan Messmore is William E. Simon
Fellow in Religion and a Free Society in the Richard and Helen
DeVos Center for Religion and Civil Society at The Heritage
Coincidentally, federal spending has increased 2000 percent in the
past 40 years, while inflation has risen a comparatively modest 500
percent. Less than half of the increase in federal spending is due
to defense and homeland security spending. Entitlement spending on
Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid alone consumes 8.4 percent
of today's GDP, and that figure is expected to double in about 40
years. See Alison Acosta Fraser, Rea S. Hederman, Jr., and Michelle
Muccio, "Federal Revenue and Spending: A Book of Charts," 2007, at
Craig Gay, The Way of the (Modern) World (Grand Rapids,
Mich.: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1998), Chapter 6.
This is not the only reason parents are responsible for their
children, but the ability to offer the best care becomes very
relevant when considering parental versus government
Herbert, op-ed, "The Divide in Caring for Our Kids," The New
York Times, June 12, 2007, at http://select.nytimes.com/search/
Syracuse University professor Arthur Brooks has found that
government spending on charitable causes leads both liberals and
conservatives to give less to charity. "The most likely reason for
this," he suggests, "is that people tend to see government aid and
private charity as substitutes." See Arthur Brooks, Who Really
Cares: The Surprising Truth About Compassionate Conservatism
(New York: Basic Books, 2006), p. 58. Interestingly, Brooks found
that those who believe the government has a responsibility to
reduce income inequality are less likely to give money to
charity--and usually give less of it--than those who oppose
government income redistribution. Ibid., p. 55.
Oliver O'Donovan, The Ways of Judgment (Grand Rapids, Mich.:
William B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 2005), Part I.
Samuel West, "On the Right to Rebel Against Governors," in
American Political Writing During the Founding Era:
1760-1805, Vol. I, ed. Charles S. Hyneman and Donald S. Lutz
(Indianapolis, Ind.: Liberty Press, 1983), p. 420.
founders also acknowledged government's authority to organize
necessary common action beyond the competence of other institutions
or forms of community.