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Freedom & Responsibility

Why you can't have one without the other.


by James Leroy Wilson
February 13, 2002

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Freedom & Responsibility_James Leroy Wilson-Why you can't have one without the other. Suppose a man invented a cure for all blindness and all forms of poor eyesight, and netted for himself $100 billion. Which of the following would best describe your reaction?
1.Be thankful to God for this wonderful miracle of science.
2.Mourn the loss of jobs in the optometry industry, and blame the inventor's greed as responsible for the social injustice that the poor of the world are not getting perfect vision at as fast a rate as those in the upper and middle classes of the developed world. Call for patent reform, higher taxes on the super-rich, and campaign finance reform to prevent such a lout from trying to protect his inflated riches from the suffering people.
3.Praise the gift, but condemn the selfish, greedy motivations behind the invention.

Obviously, a lot of optometrists, and people with related jobs, will see their careers in the industry end. It is foolish, however, to blame the inventor for such loss, for the good he provides outstrips the good the of the industry. And to blame the "market" or "society" is equally silly. That'd be like blaming the market for preferring the Beatles to Herman's Hermits.

But least of all should the optometrists et.al. get blamed for their unemployment. They did nothing wrong, they were not at fault, yet they lost their jobs. Since we can't assign blame for anyone else either, we must conclude that no one is to blame. The question arises: if no one is to blame, who is responsible to see that these people get new jobs?

Put another way, why should other people be compelled to provide for them? If no wrong was done, no crime committed, what is owed? How can the optometrist get "justice?"

Well, here's the simple, hard truth: he can't get "justice" here because no injustice was done to him. Circumstances beyond his control dealt him an unfair blow, but had measures been taken to protect his line of work, far greater unfairness would have been dealt to the hard-of-seeing. No one unjustly robbed him of his "market;" the market, rightfully, chose something better even though he did nothing wrong.

There is risk in every job. A job is like everything else in life, vulnerable to accident, or the crimes, whims, and jealousies of others, or just plain bad timing. Think of the loss of a marriage. Though one is divorced because of the unfaithfulness of the spouse, and another is widowed due to cancer or a drunk driver - even still, absolutely no one else is "responsible" for finding new spouses for them. And even if they make efforts to seek, there is no guarantee that they will find what they're looking for.

Similarly, only those who have lost their jobs are responsible for discovering and starting another. Because responsibility has nothing to do with "fault" or "blame." If anything, it has to do with forgiveness. For forgiveness is saying: even when your wrongdoing damaged me, I myself am responsible for repairing the damage - you have no obligation to me and I hold nothing against you. But even more than forgiveness, responsibility has to do with freedom. Personal freedom. Freedom says, "Though circumstances may influence my life, they will not determine my happiness." Freedom is seizing the opportunity to improve, not the excuse to mourn, one's lot in life. Ask not what others can do for you, but do what you can do.

Freedom is, ultimately, a state of the mind and heart, rather than a condition in one's economic, social, and public life. For freedom's joy is to embrace responsibility for our happiness, rather than make it dependent on what others say or do. But the more our laws and institutions tell us that personal responsibility is not important, but that it is the duty of the government, paid for by productive people, to take care of people's needs, oppression is the result:
Though I am a good accountant, I got laid off at Arthur Andersen, and high taxes prevented me from saving as much as I wanted to.
I think I'd be a good high school accounting teacher, but state regulations will force me to get more schooling and certification.
I could start my own business, but it's too expensive because of the regulatory hoops to jump through.
I guess I'll just enjoy the unemployment checks until I find the right job.

The fewer choices the government allows, the harder it is for people to to care of themselves responsibly, or as they personally see fit. And those who are fortunate enough to prosper despite government are resented and accused of being lucky and greedy. A society that could be free, responsible, and happy is instead over-regulated and over-taxed, irresponsible, and depressed. It's a tragedy.

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Dear Jon from Chicago writes:
February 14, 2002
Regarding the five descriptive phrases of our culture in the very last sentence on this column, I have this to say:

1. Bingo. 2. Bingo. 3. Bingo. 4. Bingo. 5. Bingo.

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