The Return of Social Responsibility

The concept of ‘personal responsibility’ is commonly invoked in discussions of social, moral and economic matters.

Its contemporary use in the economic sphere has its roots in an argument which came to prominence in the 1970s – that poverty is the responsibility of the poor themselves, rather than the state. Far from betraying a lack of compassion, its proponents contended that ‘tough love’ was in the best interests of the poor because state intervention – particularly in the form of welfare -creates dependence and prevents individuals from improving their own conditions.

Given these origins it is interesting that when introducing the Welfare Reform Bill this week, Minister McCausland repeatedly referred to ‘personal and social responsibility’. The Minister did not explain what he meant by this phrase, but does it signal the return of social responsibility?

Perhaps it did not disappear at all, and was simply transferred from the state to the private sector, where it was rebranded as Corporate Social Responsibility. This notion is met with cynicism in some quarters, on the basis that profit maximisation remains the fundamental responsibility of business. While it would be unfair to deny Corporate Social Responsibility’s capacity for good, it is true that its potential is limited to the extent that good deeds make good business sense.

Some argue that the private sector is not so much the new font of social responsibility as the main recipient of state welfare, and allege double standards in the way that state assistance for commerce is rarely criticised for corroding personal responsibility. The not dissimilar, if more respectable sounding, concept of ‘moral hazard’ is sometimes deployed in these situations. For example it was recently used in reference to the danger that the state bailout prevents financial institutions from taking full responsibility for the adverse consequences of their actions.

The more substantial point is that the acknowledgement that government does and should support some sectors of society erodes a cornerstone of the personal responsibility mantra – that an individual’s level of wealth is the product of their hard work and talent (or lack of) alone. Many successful businesses and industries have benefited considerably if not decisively from government largesse. The image of the ‘self-made’ entrepreneur is further tarnished once the influence of one’s family environment is taken into account. Gina Rinehart, reputedly the world’s richest woman, recently advised: 'If you're jealous of those with more money, don't just sit there and complain. Do something to make more money yourself - spend less time drinking or smoking and socialising, and more time working.' Much was made of the fact that Ms Rinehart inherited her business from her father.

While egotism can be off-putting, there is a place for taking pride in one’s success. And the confidence that ‘personal responsibility’ carries in the power of the individual, its rugged ‘can-do’ attitude, its discouragement of passive acceptance of one’s circumstances are all admirable. But our interdependence cannot be denied. Ignoring the importance of a person’s social environment (as mainstream economic theory often does) is as ridiculous as denying human agency in responding to and negotiating that environment (as Marxist theory often does). Both are relevant to understanding – and changing – the human condition.

Indeed denying social interdependence – and therefore social responsibility – is so absurd that perhaps what has really happened is that the relationship between personal and social responsibility has been renegotiated. To encourage, equip and if necessary coerce individuals to take personal responsibility is the new social responsibility of the state. In return, striving for financial independence from the state is the new social responsibility of the individual. But far from transforming the complex individual and social processes that produce poverty, minimising the social safety net offers little more than a rehashed call to ‘get on your bike’.

The opinions, views or comments in this article do not necessarily reflect any views or policies of NICVA.

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