Personal Responsibility Realized

Thoughts from a Principled Conservative Outpost—Fifth in a series on the aspects of Panhandle conservativism.

Whiteface, Texas, is a small community located in Cochran County (sharing a border with New Mexico). Its neighbor, Sundown, Texas, is located in Hockley County. They lie at the intersection of ranching, oil production and cotton. In both, I found a sincere commitment to teaching the small number of students who attend high school as Whiteface Antelopes or Sundown Roughnecks.” Students in these smaller schools have a special view of personal responsibility that must be lived out daily between self and community. While these maturing young folks depend on the schools to help produce skills, abilities and insights, the schools depend on students to be both individuals in the schools and citizens of the communities. These gifted students provide sustenance to the community through the exercise of personal responsibility. Would a player take off their football pads, don a band uniform and march in the halftime show as a member of the band (a telephone booth-like imitation of Clark Kent’s transition to Superman)? Yes, they would.

In a free society, individuals are accountable for their own actions and decisions, including the consequences these actions and decisions have on themselves and others. This concept is fundamental. Freedom requires the burden and the responsibility to make choices that are not only beneficial to the individual but also considerate of the community. In both Whiteface and Sundown, the concept is realized.

Individuals have the freedom to make their own choices without undue interference; thus, allowing people to pursue their goals and lives according to their values and beliefs. Emotionally healthy individuals recognize when personal actions lead to positive community consequences. Moral and ethical foundations are built on the bedrock of respect for others’ rights and well-being. A free society depends on individuals being self-reliant and respectful of others simultaneously, the essence of healthy civic life, a precondition for health in the individual and the community and the nucleus of personal responsibility. Personal freedoms are bordered where they infringe upon the freedoms and rights of others. The concepts of personal responsibility and freedom often intersect and interact in complex ways, but need not cancel each other out: rather they are complementary aspects of a well-functioning society.

Freedom, in a broad sense, refers to the ability to think, act and make choices independently without undue constraint or coercion, what I believe to be a fundamental human right. Responsibility, on the other hand, involves acknowledging and accepting the consequences of individual actions and decisions and being accountable to others in the community. Freedom and personal responsibility are interdependent and mutually supportive. Freedom without personal responsibility can lead to actions that harm others and the community, undermining the very basis of freedom. Conversely, personal responsibility without freedom can lead to injustice and resentment. In many philosophical, ethical and legal frameworks, the balance between personal responsibility and freedom is essential. This balance ensures individuals have the freedom to make choices while also ensuring they are held accountable for the consequences of those choices in a way that respects the rights and well-being of others.

Walter E. Williams, the late economist and commentator, frequently emphasized the importance of personal responsibility as a cornerstone of both economic success and social harmony. He believed individuals are primarily responsible for the outcomes of their actions and societal problems which often stem from the abandonment of personal responsibility. Williams argued that government policies promoting dependency undermine individual initiative and accountability, leading to negative consequences for society as a whole. According to Williams, economic prosperity and social cohesion are dependent upon a culture where individuals are responsible for their actions, work ethic and the consequences of their decisions. He was critical of policies he perceived as encouraging a victim mentality or dependency on government assistance, arguing such policies stifle personal growth, innovation and economic freedom.

Often considered the father of liberalism, John Locke’s theories of government, expressed in his work Two Treatises of Government, laid the groundwork for the emphasis on individual rights and responsibilities. He believed in the idea of a social contract where individuals consent to form a government that protects their natural rights, implying a personal responsibility to participate in and uphold this social contract.

James Madison expressed concerns regarding the intersection of personal and civic responsibility. “Federalist No. 10,” an essay written by Madison as the tenth of The Federalist Papers, addresses the issue of an individual’s right that appears to conflict with the rights of others or even the whole community. This challenge has been alive for nearly three hundred years and will likely never dissipate.  It leads to factionalisms in every society and every human group. Factions being neither good or bad inherently, might end in the polarization of various groups that infringe upon the rights of others. Such categorizations can only be mediated by accepting personal responsibility for decisions, and the results thereof.

But such factions should not descend to destructive identity politics which undermine a free society. In a letter to W.T. Barry on August 4, 1822, Madison wrote, “Knowledge will forever govern ignorance, and a people who mean to be their own governors must arm themselves with the power which knowledge gives.”​​ Madison believed, as do we at West Texas A&M University, that an informed citizenry is essential to sustain freedom.

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

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