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Friday, July 22, 2005

Responsibility in Governance

Authority can be delegated; responsibility cannot. That was a lesson I learned early in my time in the US Navy. As a supervisor, I could authorize someone to be in charge of a work detail. However, it remained my responsibility to make sure it got done. The assumption of that attitude is necessary for a large organization to function effectively.

Unfortunately, in the modern world, our leaders crave authority, but duck responsibility. They want the power to do things, to accomplish their agenda. They do not want to be called to account for their failures, either personally, individually, or collectively.

It isn't a Democratic problem or a Republican problem, it's a bipartisan problem. It's a societal problem. It's systemic.

Historically, JFK reached his moment of his highest popularity (while still living) when he publically accepted responsibility for the failure of the Bay of Pigs invasion. As I look back over the Presidents that I clearly remember - George W. Bush, Bill Clinton, George H.W. Bush, and Ronald Reagan, I can't think of a single time when a President actually faced the country and said, "I was wrong. You selected me to make decisions and I thought I was doing the right thing. Evidence proves me wrong. I failed myself and I failed you. Forgive me. I will do better."

Instead, we are stuck in a rut where Republicans blame Democrats and Democrats blame Republicans and the minority blames the majority and the majority blames the minority and nothing really gets done about anything. Yet time and again, across the country, voters return the same people to office. Like a plane on auto-pilot, we simply do what we are told. "Vote for me!"

But it extends beyond the Beltway. It extends into every neighborhood of every city in the country. We demand greater benefits - more spending on schools, highways, and homeland security - while screaming for lower taxes. This did not happen by chance, it is the necessary result of two sides neglecting half of the equation for responsible society.

Democrats tend to call for greater benefits - more Social Security, medical coverage, etc. They stress the social responsibility we bear towards each other. We must have better health coverage because it is our responsibility as citizens to render aid to those unable to help themselves - a secular version of the Good Samaritan parable.

We are right to do so. Society is more than a collection of individuals. It is an interdependent brotherhood. Because it is so large, we have reached a point where some can be untouchable, unseeable, unworthy of respect or care. They CAN be, but they should not be. The unfortunate truth is that we all really do sink or swim together, but by the time it becomes clear that everyone is sinking, it will be too late to help many people and families. In domestic terms, one person who goes hungry is too much, one person who lives on the streets because they cannot find a job to pay for a home is too much, one person who is victimized by those who should be providing care is too much, one person who suffers when we have the means to alleviate their pain is too much.

That is, after all, the meaning of the Good Samaritan tale.

Yet it is only half of the equation. Focusing only on social fixes does lead to dependence and strips people of their dignity by turning them into professional beggars who must whore themselves to any rule attached to welfare funds. That is not the interdependent and loving picture of society urged by Jesus. It is not the goal of our social reformers, secular or religiously based.

For social justice to be just, individuals must be responsible for taking advantage of opportunities that come their way. Yes, social conditions make it easy to see criminal activity as an easy road to wealth, but there are individuals who face horrible social conditions who still somehow choose not to be criminals. There are still individuals who use their natural talents and devote time to honing their hard-won skills to claw their way ahead in life. We cannot make a mockery of their efforts by excusing those who exert themselves to a lesser extent.

The long march to responsibility begins with a painful analysis of personal failings. We must each understand how far we fall short of our own values, how badly we violate our own principles. By understanding our own humanity, we will be better able to determine how we can re-create a society where social justice and responsibility is balanced by individual responsibility. That will return America to its standing as the "Land of Opportunity" where there is truly "liberty and justice for all".

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