Responsibility: For some the word conjures up images of old people lecturing young people about sitting up straight, doing their homework, and writing thank-you notes to elderly aunts.

Unsurprisingly, we’re expected to think it’s boring, tedious, a diversion from our enjoyment of our freedom. The goal of freedom, the images suggest, is to escape responsibilities.

In fact, embracing responsibility is neither boring, nor tedious, nor a diversion from freedom. Being responsible entails at times doing things that are unpleasant or even great sacrifices, but embracing responsibility provides the greatest of human satisfactions. 

Embracing one’s own responsibility is in fact an adventure and an act of daring. We deserve to be free because we can be held accountable for our acts; because we can make choices; because we can exercise self control. 

Responsibility is not a burden we must bear to be free; the awareness that “I did that” is what makes freedom a prize worth fighting for. Responsibility is the key to the realization of freedom.

The wisdom of Adam Smith on responsibility

We do not deserve our freedom merely because we have desires or impulses. We deserve to be free — to control our own lives — because we are morally accountable: to each other, to God (for those who believe), and to our own consciences. As one of history’s most influential moral philosophers wrote hundreds of years ago,

“A moral being is an accountable being. An accountable being, as the word expresses, is a being that must give an account of its actions to some other, and that consequently must regulate them according to the good-liking of this other.”

Adam Smith went on to explain that the development of moral consciousness entails accountability not only to others but to ourselves, for what we seek is not merely to be praised, but to be praise-worthy, two goals that may resemble each other, but which “are yet, in many respects, distinct and independent of each other.”

As social creatures, we seek to become praise-worthy, or “admirable,” but “in order to attain this satisfaction, we must become the impartial spectators of our own character and conduct. We must endeavor to view them with the eyes of other people, or as other people are likely to view them.”

Becoming impartial spectators of our own character and conduct enables us to earn our own self-esteem. As Smith noted, 

“The man who applauds us either for actions we did not perform, or for motives which had no sort of influence upon our conduct, applauds not us, but another person. We can derive no sort of satisfaction from his praises.”

Such satisfaction is possible in no other way than by embracing responsibility.

Freedom beyond chaos

Freedom: For some the word conjures up images of “anything goes,” of disorder, chaos, immorality, license. Unsurprisingly, they consider freedom frightening. As a consequence, many have believed that order and virtue must be imposed at the expense of freedom. They equate responsibility with submission to the commands of others.

Some have even promised that such submission, although it may destroy what we ordinary people consider our freedom, promises a higher freedom, one far superior to what they dismiss as merely empirical or “bourgeois” freedom. 

They promise an ecstatic freedom that can only be found when our actions are directed by the wise and the good, or at least the powerful.

Frederick Douglass: freedom through responsibility

Freedom is not the same as license; responsibility closely connects freedom with virtue and self-command. The connection was made clear by one of history’s greatest champions of freedom, a man who was born a slave in Talbot County, Maryland: Frederick Augustus Washington Bailey, a man who achieved freedom for himself and for millions of others. 

He is known by the name he chose for himself: Frederick Douglass. Douglass wrote in 1845 — as a former slave who liberated himself — of the “holidays” allowed to slaves by their captors.

Such moments of seeming freedom were portrayed as acts of benevolence by the slaveholders, but were in fact deployed as “safety-valves, to carry off the rebellious spirit of enslaved humanity.” The slaveholders sought to sink their captives in depravity, rather than offer them a respite from slavery:

“Their object seems to be, to disgust their slaves with freedom, by plunging them into the lowest depths of dissipation. For instance, the slaveholders not only like to see the slave drink of his own accord, but will adopt various plans to make him drunk. One plan is, to make bets on their slaves, as to who can drink the most whisky without getting drunk; and in this way they succeed in getting whole multitudes to drink to excess. 

Thus, when the slave asks for virtuous freedom, the cunning slaveholder, knowing his ignorance, cheats him with a dose of vicious dissipation, artfully labeled with the name of liberty. The most of us used to drink it down, and the result was just what might be supposed: many of us were led to think that there was little to choose between liberty and slavery. 

We felt, and very properly so, that we had almost as well be slaves to man as to rum. So, when the holidays ended, we staggered up from the filth of our wallowing, took a long breath, and marched to the field—feeling, upon the whole, rather glad to go, from what our master had deceived us into a belief was freedom, back to the arms of slavery.”

For Douglass, freedom was found not in the drunkenness and vice encouraged by the masters, but in the dignity of self-assumed responsibility. 

He learned the measure of freedom when he, as he put it, “got hold of a book entitled The Columbian Orator” and was captivated by a dialogue between a master and a slave in which the slave refutes the master’s arguments for slavery and persuades the master to emancipate him. 

The effect of those arguments on Douglass was powerful:

“Freedom now appeared, to disappear no more forever. It was heard in every sound, and seen in every thing. It was ever present to torment me with a sense of my wretched condition. I saw nothing without seeing it, I heard nothing without hearing it, and felt nothing without feeling it.”

Attempts to legislate behavior and their outcome

Attempts to substitute state control for self-control generate unintended consequences that are often far worse than the situations that state control is ostensibly intended to improve. The intentions of legislators or administrators are one thing and the consequences of changing incentives are another. 

To take two prominent examples, Professor Jeffrey Miron of Harvard University exposes the terrible unintended consequences of the “War on Drugs” (crime, overdoses, spread of diseases, and more) in his chapter for this volume and journalist Lisa Conyers in her chapter examines the dependency that is created by welfare state policies, usually, but perhaps not always, as an unintended consequence of those policies.

One can never legislate or choose outcomes directly; all legislators or rulers can do is to change the incentives that participants in social interactions face. Thus, actions may be outlawed because the legislators think they’re bad. 

It does not follow that, after the rulers have spoken, no one will take those actions anymore. Understanding that, rulers specify punishments, from fines to imprisonment to death. It still does not follow that no one will take those actions.

Freedom to produce, buy, sell, and consume drugs is restricted or completely suppressed in many countries by law. Drugs are illegal in the United States, yet the prisons are full of people who produced, bought, sold, or consumed drugs despite the legislators telling them not to do so. 

Many millions of people were not dissuaded by the prospect of jail sentences, despite the extraordinary violence and the hundreds of billions of dollars deployed to change their behavior.

The experience of alcohol prohibition is being repeated; merely banning a substance does not mean that people will stop consuming it and is likely to generate consequences that the advocates of the ban did not anticipate.

The unintended consequences of welfare and state control

Responsibility to make decisions about saving for one’s retirement all over the world was taken over by governments, ostensibly to invest their earnings wisely, help them to provide for their old age, and create bonds of solidarity among generations.

In the United States wages are taxed and the taxes are not invested for the future, but churned into a “Pay As You Go” system that is financially indistinguishable from a pyramid scheme and that accumulates massive “unfunded liabilities” over time. 

Wage earners were told that their compulsory Social Security payments were being “matched” by “contributions” from their employers, when in fact 100 percent of the “employer contribution” came out of their own pockets, as it was money the employers were paying to hire them and so the money was merely taken from the wage earners by government. 

The money was paid out immediately and replaced by nothing more than an IOU

Rather than creating intergenerational solidarity, people were encouraged to lobby for more and more payments unrelated to their contributions and unsustainable burdens were shifted to younger people. 

The system has already turned “cash negative,” meaning that the accounting fiction of the “Trust Fund” has been revealed; social security is financed by a pyramid scheme, not through “investments” or “savings.” 

When people are told that their retirement will be taken care of by government, it turns out that they consume more and save less. Moreover, when the costs fall on one group and the benefits on another, the incentives created lead people to seek benefits and avoid costs and generate a myriad of conflicts, including intergenerational conflict.

Self-control is never perfect, but state control is no improvement.

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This essay was previously published in ‘Self-Control or State Control? You Decide,’ edited by Tom G. Palmer — a project of Students For Liberty and Atlas Network, in cooperation with Jameson Books, Inc.

This piece solely expresses the opinion of the author and not necessarily the organization as a whole. Students For Liberty is committed to facilitating a broad dialogue for liberty, representing a variety of opinions.