Liberty, Dignity, and Responsibility: The Moral Triad of a Good Society:

By Klein, Daniel B. | Independent Review, Winter 1997 | Go to article overview

Liberty, Dignity, and Responsibility: The Moral Triad of a Good Society:


Klein, Daniel B., Independent Review


In The Constitution of Liberty, Friedrich Hayek wrote, "the belief in individual responsibility...has always been strong when people firmly believed in individual freedom" (1960, 71; see also 1967, 232). He also observed that during his time the belief in individual responsibility "has markedly declined, together with the esteem for freedom." In surveying the twentieth century, noting the ascent of the philosophy of entitlement, the doctrines of command and control, and their institutional embodiments--the welfare state and the regulatory state--one can only respond, "indeed." Lately, perhaps, a reversal has begun.

We might advance the reversal if we better understood responsibility and its connection to liberty. We speak often of responsibility, but vaguely, even more so than when we talk of liberty. When Hayek refers to "the belief in individual responsibility," does he mean the striving by the individual to be admirably responsive in his behavior, to be reliable, dependable, or trustworthy? Or does he mean the belief that individuals ought to be held to account, to be answerable or liable for their actions? A drunken watchman can be held accountable for trouble that occurs during his shift; he is then both irresponsible and responsible. Indeed, the two kinds of responsibility tend to occur together, but they are conceptually distinct. As moral philosophers, we usually have the reliability notion in mind; as political philosophers, the accountability notion. To make the terminological distinction clear, I shall call the personal trait of being admirably responsive personal responsibility, and the social-relations trait of holding the individual to account individual responsibility.

Individual responsibility fosters personal responsibility. Policy affects morals. And personal responsibility enhances the appeal of individual responsibility and of liberty. Morals affect policy. Putting policy and morals together, we get feedback loops and multiplier effects.

I shall attempt to clarify the moral dimension of our statist ways. But moral philosophy here is handmaiden to political philosophy. I do not aim to persuade the individual to find or affirm certain moral outlooks or personal habits. I aim to persuade members of the polity to change government policy. One of the most important, if subterranean, arguments for changing government policy, however, is that doing so affects individuals' moral outlooks and personal habits, which in turn affects....

Clarifying Liberty and Individual Responsibility

My usage of liberty has a common recognition and acceptance. By liberty, I refer to private property rights, consent, and contract. By private property rights, consent, and contract, I mean what traditional common-law conventions have meant. Of course, there are gray areas here--what is the precise scope of private property rights? what of implicit terms in agreements?--and one must consider the senile, children, and other hard cases. But as a famous jurist once said, that there is a dusk does not mean there is no night and no day. Some things are gray, but most are either black or white. Despite its areas of ambiguity, the principle of liberty is cogent and well established. In the United States it is most consistently and most completely advocated by the libertarian movement. National and state policies that clearly encroach on the principle of liberty include drug prohibition, drug prescription requirements, drug approval requirements, restrictions on sexual services, licensing restrictions, wage and price controls, health and safety regulations of private-sector affairs, antitrust policies, import restrictions, laws against discrimination in private-sector affairs, and gun control. On the truly local level, such policies might be viewed as acceptable because we might grant town government the status of contract, as for a proprietary community. The point here is not that liberty is everywhere good and desirable, only that it is reasonably cogent. …

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