Monday, July 4, 2011

Freedom and Responsibility

Some think the opposite of freedom is slavery or perhaps living under a dictatorship, but in our society the opposite of freedom is the benevolent authoritarianism of warnings and legal restrictions resulting from our failures in the dimension of responsibility.

We are told that we are all victims of the economy, our high-stress jobs, and our non-stop lifestyles.  The word is used in ads everyday, one even asking me if I am the victim of hair loss.  We are victims of big oil when gasoline prices rise, of big drug companies, or of big insurance companies when they raise their rates or dispute our claims.  Especially in legal cases involving civil suits, attorneys first persuade prospective clients that they are victims (you’ve seen the ads on TV) then persuade juries that their clients are victims and someone should pay.  (In those same ads on TV you often hear the word settlement because the main targets of these suits understand that most juries have bought into this point of view.  The juries also believe that a big corporation or insurance company will pay the cost and it will never get back to us, but those who understand the economic process know better.)

Victimhood is an easy answer.  It takes no effort.  What went wrong is someone else’s fault; we are not to blame; we share none of the responsibility.  It’s a passive stance.  I don’t have a high-paying job, not because I didn’t bother to finish high school, but because I am being discriminated against.  I didn’t get lung cancer because I refused to quit smoking, but because the tobacco companies tricked me.  My kids don’t have too many toys because I bought them, but because of the cartoons on the TV.  The banks fooled me into getting a mortgage I couldn’t afford.  When I have a sore knee, I ask the doctor for a pill or for surgery rather than lose some weight.  I get to put all my problems in someone else’s hands.  Responsible people don’t act like this, but victims do.

When we feel and act this way, we need to be protected.  That’s when the warnings and regulations begin.  “These people can’t take care of themselves so we must put warnings on cigarette packages, on ladders, on hairdryers, and on almost every other product, telling them not to use them in ways that may seem stupid to the average person.”  When we sign up or sign our kids up to play sports, we must sign “hold harmless” forms.  All the warnings don’t stop the lawsuits, so next come the regulations:  all playgrounds must provide soft landings, all car trunks need an escape handle, all lawnmowers must have an automatic shutdown device, etc.  Some cities have banned the sale of certain foods or of fast food in certain neighborhoods.

Where does it all end?  The old analogy of boiling a frog applies.  Throw a frog into boiling water and he jumps back out.  Put him in a pot and slowly increase the temperature and he sits complacently until it’s too late.   Likewise, when we don’t behave responsibly, our freedoms are slowly taken away.  Each of those efforts seems well-meaning and harmless, but each is another example of someone restricting our choices for our own good.  Each is a loss of freedom, the consequence of patterns of behavior showing weakness in the dimension of responsibility.

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