Yesterday I came across an interesting blog in the American Conservative with the catchy title of “Responsibility, Personal and Individual (Or, How to Do Political Theory By Watching ‘Girls’).” In it, Samuel Goldman asserts that “while progressives expect the state to take care of people, conservatives argue that people should talk care of themselves.” Although this formulation isn’t particularly sympathetic (or accurate) to the either side, the bulk of the article tries to make a more subtle point that conservatives should shift away from the ‘personal responsibility’ polemic toward one that focuses on our mutual responsibility to take care of each other.

The author contrasts the popular TV shows ‘Girls’ and ‘Friday Night Lights’ to illustrate this distinction, with the former representing narcissism and the latter a more communal spirit. Specifics aside, I think that one notable aspect of the author’s invocation of communal responsibility is that it stops at the level of community members taking care of each other, as opposed to the entire nation assuming responsibility for all citizens. This somehow parallels the argument for federalism, where each state takes care of itself and the national government (the ‘state’) is a minimal presence. What the author leaves unaddressed is why our community boundaries should stop at our township, city, or state, as opposed to the nation.

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I suspect that one of the many answers is that, at least in this blog post, the author is referring to taking care of your neighbor in the interpersonal, face-to-face sense, of helping them to find work, take care of their kids, attain educational goals for them and their family, build a swingset, etc. However, what about the sense of “taking care of one’s neighbor” that only the government, or some larger citizen body, can fulfill? If I want to take care of my neighbor by building a road that reaches his house, connecting him to broadband internet, covering him with health care, or hiring high quality teachers for his children’s school, then I will have to do so via some larger structure, not through baking him cookies and helping him shovel his driveway. Yet, for whatever reason, “helping out a neighbor in need” is rarely thought of as modifying economic and social structures in order to facilitate success across a broad range of life outcomes, and I think that’s something that Goldman leaves unaddressed in his pining for communal values.

I grew up in rural America, and I’m the first to say that having a strong community was one of its greatest perks. However, as much as we all looked out for each other, what we couldn’t, as individuals, do for each other, was amass the sort of investments in our community that could radically increase the opportunities available to families throughout the region. Attending the local high school football game may help the team pull out a victory, but we need a higher notion of collective action and trust in our government to help the youth on the field get an education, health care, and a job with benefits.

Photo Credit: Kevin H.