The Age of Responsibility: Luck, Choice, and the Welfare State

The Age of Responsibility: Luck, Choice, and the Welfare State

by Yascha Mounk

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Overview

A novel focus on “personal responsibility” has transformed political thought and public policy in America and Europe. Since the 1970s, responsibility—which once meant the moral duty to help and support others—has come to suggest an obligation to be self-sufficient. This narrow conception of responsibility has guided recent reforms of the welfare state, making key entitlements conditional on good behavior. Drawing on intellectual history, political theory, and moral philosophy, Yascha Mounk shows why the Age of Responsibility is pernicious—and how it might be overcome.

Personal responsibility began as a conservative catchphrase. But over time, leaders across the political spectrum came to subscribe to its underlying framework. Today, even egalitarian philosophers rarely question the normative importance of responsibility. Emphasizing the pervasive influence of luck over our lives, they cast the poor as victims who cannot be held responsible for their actions.

Mounk shows that today’s focus on individual culpability is both wrong and counterproductive: it distracts us from the larger economic forces determining aggregate outcomes, ignores what we owe our fellow citizens regardless of their choices, and blinds us to other key values, such as the desire to live in a society of equals. Recognizing that even society’s neediest members seek to exercise genuine agency, Mounk builds a positive conception of responsibility. Instead of punishing individuals for their past choices, he argues, public policy should aim to empower them to take responsibility for themselves—and those around them.

Editorial Reviews

The New York Times Book Review - James Ryerson

…smart and engaging…Mounk is not opposed to accountability per se. He does not advocate for a state that compensates its citizens for any and all bad decisions whatever the cost may be. But he does worry that we have embraced accountability to the exclusion of other important values (such as equality and solidarity); at the price of predictability (and the peace of mind that follows from knowing what you can rely on, come what may); and to the neglect of overall social well-being.

Los Angeles Review of Books - Sean McCann

[An] important new book…Over the course of the past half century, Mounk points out, political officials of both major parties have turned repeatedly to the core value of personal responsibility, calling on it to redefine the purposes and design of government as well as pushing the state to play an ever more disciplinary role in relation to its most vulnerable citizens. They have been motivated, Mounk suggests, not merely by a political agenda, but by a fantasy of the just social order—a vision in which each individual person cares for herself and the government acts to ensure that citizens receive only the public support their efforts merit. The dream, as Mounk reveals, is a narrow and crabbed one. Placed under his precise and dispassionate analysis, it shows itself to be conceptually dubious and empirically unworkable. But the fantasy has attracted plenty of influential adherents. Indeed, among the most troubling of Mounk’s arguments is the claim that the liberal defenders of the welfare state no less than its conservative antagonists have signed on to the dream of personal responsibility. No surprise, then, that a thin theory of individual agency has come to dominate our ideas about freedom and that an impoverished language of citizenship has crowded out alternative visions of democratic society…He mounts a compelling case, that political rhetoric in the United States—and to a lesser, but still significant degree in other industrialized democracies—has shifted over the last half century toward a markedly punitive vision of social welfare. This trend has coincided with policy transformations that have served to discipline individual citizens by demanding that they bear the costs of their own behavior and the risks of a hazardous world. The age of responsibility, in this view, is not only the period that brought us workfare and conditional unemployment benefits—and, one might add, mass incarceration…Where ideas of the public good or of shared responsibility once prevailed, private interest is now the presumptive guide.

Michael Sandel

Yascha Mounk traces the faltering legitimacy of the welfare state to the narrow notion of personal responsibility that politicians—and many philosophers—have come to embrace. In a compelling challenge to conservatives and liberals alike, this important book prompts us to reconsider the role of luck and choice in debates about welfare, and to rethink our mutual responsibilities as citizens.

Michael J. Sandel

Yascha Mounk traces the faltering legitimacy of the welfare state to the narrow notion of personal responsibility that politicians—and many philosophers—have come to embrace. In a compelling challenge to conservatives and liberals alike, this important book prompts us to reconsider the role of luck and choice in debates about welfare, and to rethink our mutual responsibilities as citizens.

New York Times Book Review - James Ryerson

[A] smart and engaging book…Does it make sense, [Mounk] wonders, to focus so much on whether a sick poor person is responsible for not having acquired health insurance? Given that studies suggest public health and economic growth would benefit if he (and others like him) had coverage, shouldn’t we consider providing it regardless of whether he ‘deserves’ it? Or do we so value holding people accountable that we are willing to jeopardize our own welfare for a proper comeuppance? …Mounk contends [that] too many advocates unwittingly accept the punitive framework of accountability and, following its logic, end up patronizing those they want to help.

Jedediah Purdy

A terrific book. The insight at its heart—that we live in an ‘age of responsibility,’ and that the conception of responsibility now at work in much public rhetoric and policy is both punitive and ill-conceived—is very important and should be widely heeded.

Notre Dame Philosophical Reviews - Scott Anderson

Impressive, frequently charming…It seems aimed to appeal well beyond the philosophical community, with hopes of motivating a thoughtful and concerned readership to revamp the way our conception of ‘personal responsibility’ functions in political and social life. The book employs a fair amount of extant philosophical work to provoke a change in our public discourse and practices, while also performing some creative philosophical work that might be of interest to disciplinary philosophers. It is overall an erudite and enjoyably readable book…Mounk’s book is a laudable and fruitful achievement.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780674545465
Publisher: Harvard
Publication date: 05/09/2017
Pages: 288
Sales rank: 430,687
Product dimensions: 5.60(w) x 8.40(h) x 1.20(d)

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