American Inequality and the Idea of Personal Reponsibility

Public Affairs Quarterly 26 (4):337-360 (2012)
In terms of income and wealth (and a variety of other measures), citizens of the United States are significantly less equal than their peers in Canada and Europe. In addition, American society is becoming increasingly less equal. Some theorists argue that this inequality is inefficient. Others claim that is unjust. Many Americans, however, are less concerned with the potential inefficiency and injustice of growing inequality. Distinguishing as Milton Friedman does between equality of result and equality of opportunity, many claim that American inequality is greater because our social and political institutions hold individuals responsible for their decisions. There is nothing unjust about holding individuals responsible for their choices or preferences. This political philosophy builds from the popular idea that, in the words of Dennis Prager of the Heritage Foundation, “American individualism and the Judeo-Christian notion of personal accountability gave us the extraordinary nation that we built here.” At least since the publication of the Republican Party’s Contract with America, every prominent Republican (and many Democrats) has affirmed the importance of personal responsibility. The idea of personal responsibility plays a central role in debates over how to structure U.S. society. For these reasons, this paper considers a group of theories that Elizabeth Anderson labels “luck egalitarian.” These theories remain the most influential philosophical attempts to incorporate personal responsibility into a theory of justice. This essay takes as its staring point Anderson’s widely discussed criticisms for these theorists, and considers several of the best and most sustained responses to these criticisms (and related claims by Samuel Scheffler, Jonathan Wolff, and others). The goal is not to provide a summary of different luck egalitarian accounts of justice, a task others have performed admirably (Knight 2009, Knight and Stemplowska 2011). Furthermore, this paper will not attempt to decide which luck egalitarian theory best withstands these criticisms. Instead, this paper makes a philosophically and empirically informed case regarding how policy makers ought to utilize a principle that plays a prominent role in current American public policy debates: the role of personal responsibility. In order to make this case, I must weave normative and empirical analysis, and consider the ways in which social position in the status quo United States does not trace personal responsibility. From this analysis, I suggest three policy priorities for those interested in redeeming the oft-celebrated claim about American society: that an individual is responsible for her social position. This work promises to be of interest to any theorist or policy maker concerned with the practical implications of recent work in the moral and political philosophy of personal responsibility, or, really, anyone interested in making American society comparatively just.
Keywords Egalitarianism  Personal Responsibility  Luck Egalitarianism  Philosophy and Public Policy
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