Wednesday, 23 May 2012

“’s not a matter of whether you win or lose but how you place the blame”

I recall a ‘Peanuts’ cartoon that took the rise out of an old saw with:

“’s not a matter of whether you win or lose but how you place the blame”

We all smiled but underneath this pleasure at a little witticism lies a darker truth – we do, all of us, seek to lay the blame somewhere other than on ourselves. And with this goes our pleasure – that schadenfreude – at going over past failings so as to point the finger of condemnation, to lay the blame. Such passing of responsibility’s buck has become not only institutionalised but expensive.

The Saville report's numbers are their own indictment – 434 days in session, 12 years from inception to publication, a £191m budget, tens of millions of words and finally a retail price of £572.

It’s not for me to enquire whether this enquiry provided catharsis for those involved or merely a bully pulpit for republicanism but merely for us to appreciate that the blame game now sits at the core of how we behave. Everywhere we look people seek excuses for this mistakes, faults and failings – we have become a nation of Heinz Kiosks crying at every opportunity: “we are all guilty”.

We have become dependent rather than free, supplicants to the state in all its forms and ready to play a fine hand of excuses – race, sex, social upbringing, drink, drugs, peer pressure – whenever something goes wrong. We are no longer prepared – unless forced by authority – to accept personal responsibility for our lives and how we live them.

For the conservative this is a problem – personal responsibility is central to what we believe. Yet human instinct seems to draw us away from accepting that responsibility – the first response of the sales clerk or shop assistant is seldom to apologise. More usually it is to seek excuse – to explain why the product or service failed. As if we care about how short staffed they are or how the supplier let them down or whether they were ill - that is their problem, not mine. It is their responsibility.

The problem is that this culture of dependence and supplication leads us to an expectation that our problems will be resolved by others – parents, employer and, most commonly, the government. The state must act to “create jobs”, to “protect families”, to “promote well-being” – to lay down “solutions” to all the problems of our lives. And when there’s a problem – new or old – there’s a lobby group on hand and opposition politicians ready and waiting to call for action, for “something to be done”.

There are two big problems with this dependence – the first is that is creates a class of folk dependent on the government. Either because they – in ever larger numbers – work for that government or because they are financially dependent on the handouts of that government (rather ironically called “benefits”). But there is a second problem, more insidious yet – the rejection by so many of any responsibility for ordering their lives divides society.

The big divide in western societies is no longer between rich and poor, nor is it between ‘upper’ and ‘lower’ classes, the big schism is between the dependent and the independent. Between those who, most of the time, act independently of government and those who depend on the state. The growth of the latter – of the state-dependent – squeezes out private action and initiative, stifles innovation. Why get involved, why innovate when there is a benign state to care for us? I recall my mother bemoaning how difficult it was to recruit volunteers for the day centre – the most common reason for rejection: “that’s the council’s job”.

The principle of responsibility has become so compromised that it results in injustice:

Reggie Bush is a good case in point. Playing for the University of Southern California, he won the 2005 Heisman Trophy as the most outstanding college football player in the USA, while his team won the national championship. The results of an NCAA investigation, however, found that Bush knowingly broke the rules by allowing a sports agent hoping to represent him someday to provide free housing for his parents. Although Bush might have to return some awards, he is safe and sound as a very well paid professional football player. His coach at the time of his violations, Pete Carroll, is now coaching the Seattle Seahawks professional football team and will not be punished. The penalties go to the school, USC, and its current football players who will be barred from bowl games for a couple of years. The people most responsible for the violation -- Bush and his coaches -- go mostly unpunished.

And our rejection of personal responsibility has led to a veritable frenzy of lawyers scrapping over the opportunity to extract value from blaming someone else – personal injury claims, employment tribunals, class action cases against smoking or drinking and a host of other lucrative sources of legal business. For sure, I know the defence – sometimes it really is someone else’s fault – but we have reached a stage where the first response of some to a trip or a bump is to ring the lawyer, to lay the blame on some other poor fellow. “Ah, but the insurance will pay” is the cry – as if the insurance company owns a special breed of money tree! And when the premiums rise there’s a lobby on hand to call for government action, for regulation.

As a conservative, I believe I have a primary duty to myself, to my family and to my neighbours. This duty is not discharged by passing across responsibility to government in return for a tax bill. It is discharged by me taking responsibility for my life, for all the crisis and chaos, for all the pleasure and excitement, for all the ups and downs. It is discharged by me doing the right thing by my family, my friends and my neighbours. There is no government in this, no regulation, no lawyers, no church, no god – just me and my responsibility. As Robert Heinlein put it:

I am free because I know that I alone am morally responsible for everything I do. I am free, no matter what rules surround me. If I find them tolerable, I tolerate them; if I find them too obnoxious, I break them. I am free because I know that I alone am morally responsible for everything I do.

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