Personal Responsibility in A Free Society

Fifth in a series regarding Panhandle values and quality of life.

Freedom and the personal responsibility required for the effective functioning of a republican form of government are powerful one-two punches. Anarchy reigns when feeble leadership encourages freedom to be uncoupled from responsibility. Tyranny triumphs. It is impossible to consider personal responsibility absent a perspective of freedom that guides behavior individually and collectively. In the United States, constitutional provision and liberty simultaneously govern the agency of free will. Freedom. Such governance is inextricably linked to enlightenment thinking, glued in place by Judeo-Christian values embedded in our national ethos and commonly expressed in the Texas Panhandle.

In 21st-century America, moral absolutes are fading. On many college campuses, anyone holding any view that appears to be a moral absolute is branded and denigrated as phobic, thick-skulled, uninformed, regressive and generally stupid. Truthfulness, honesty, hard work, regard for others, a love of family, community and country, are launching pads for exercising personal responsibility. Not stupid. Thoughtfully informed moral frameworks create community. Thomas Jefferson wrote, “Can the liberties of a nation be sure when we removed their only firm basis, a conviction in the minds of the people, that these liberties are a gift of God?” Jefferson’s idea applies at the macro level nationally and the micro level of a relationship between two people in a family, many people in a community or region and the citizenry of a state. Liberty is the bookend of a collection of lives bounded on one end by freedom and the other by responsibility.

The Bill of Rights Institute appropriately claims that virtues are required to sustain citizenship in a free society. James Madison, in Federalist No. 55, wrote, “There is a degree of depravity in mankind which requires a certain degree of circumspection and distrust, so there are other qualities in human nature which justify a certain portion of esteem and confidence.” It is the burden of individual citizens to understand how community virtue and the exercise of personal freedom interact.

These precepts are properly embedded in American thought. John Locke recognized the interdependence of freedom and responsibility by championing the idea that people are “free, equal and independent.” In his Second Treatise on Civil Government, he observed the workings of a free society and explained, “A state also of equality, wherein all the power and jurisdiction is reciprocal, no one having more than another…” Moreover, sequences of personal responsibility form hierarchies leading to structured, productive relationships beneficial to individuals and communities. A “success sequence” that represents thoughtful accountability yields freedom. A time-honored series of life events in contemporary society: graduating from high school (at least), getting a full-time job and marrying before having kids (in that order). George Will called the success sequence “insurance against poverty.” Poverty may steal personal responsibility and freedom. Or, possibly, poverty is present when responsibility and freedom are absent. Or, most, unfortunately, a dastardly combination of both.

There is a war on personal responsibility. Interest and identity groups endeavor to absolve individuals of responsibility and instead selectively and seductively pass out praise and condemnation based on group membership rather than individual action. Walter Williams said, “Personal responsibility has taken a back seat in our increasingly immoral and litigious society.” The tribe of indebted college graduates and non–graduates is an identity group. No matter how attractive (seductive) the forgiveness of college indebtedness appears, pen-stroke absolution of personal responsibility is a 21st-century tragedy. Hard work and rewards for performance, self-control and thoughtful accountability—personally owned, not group-condoned—should be the coin of the realm.

Some organizations associated with rural life impact people in rural Texas, especially the Panhandle. In 1917 the Smith-Hughes Act was committed to the advancement of agricultural education. It focused on a better quality of life for people in rural agricultural settings and farm families, then eventually, the wider world. The Future Farmers of America (FFA) espouse and trumpet values that are part of the culture of rural communities. Likewise, 4-H has similar commitments. Both organizations make a positive difference in the lives of others, respecting the rights of all and their property, being courteous, honest and fair with others and communicating appropriately. In addition, 4-H believes in developing young people who are empowered, confident, hard-working, determined, responsible and compassionate—seeing a world beyond themselves, so they have the life-long skills to succeed in college and their careers. Such values instill a sense of personal responsibility permeating the youth and their families.

These efforts are contagious and relevant in urban and suburban environs in the 21st-century too. The focus on personal responsibility, intellectual and moral development and accountability for one’s actions are attractive everywhere. For others, this thinking is anathema. Freedom and personal responsibility are a dynamic duo transcending geography and culture while addressing the bedrock of the human condition. Universities that embrace such thinking will likely be effective.

Walter V. Wendler is President of West Texas A&M University. His weekly columns are available at

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