Ruth Marcus wrote a column on "Obamacare" the other day in which the Washington Post writer wondered why Republicans opposed a provision of the plan -- the notorious individual mandate -- that she regards as "an exemplar of personal responsibility." Republicans are all for "personal responsibility," right? So why do they oppose a measure that requires everyone to help pay his or her own way when the alternative, as Marcus writes, means the insured having to pay higher premiums to cover the costs when others wait until they're sick to buy insurance? She blames the apparent inconsistency in Republican attitudes on an irrational resistance to a "perceived encroachment of big government," and to rank-and-file fears of being made to buy something they already have. But if she thinks she's scoring a rhetorical point against Republicans by making the individual mandate a "personal responsibility" issue, then she doesn't really understand what Republicans mean by that mantra. For Republicans, a "personal responsibility" by definition is something that can't be enforced by an "individual mandate." When Republicans talk about personal responsibility they mean responsibility for one's own economic survival. They mean that it's up to you, the individual, to make sure you can afford health care, food, the roof over your head, etc. To say that you should be burdened with an individual mandate to buy health insurance would be the same, i.e. just as absurd, as imposing an individual mandate to buy food. If you can't figure out to do it, it's your problem if you're caught short. That's where Republican "personal responsibility" differs from Marcus's idea. The corollary of personal responsibility for Republicans is "it's your problem" if you don't act responsibly, while Marcus, presumably speaking for liberals, is trying to say "it's our problem," at least when your reluctance to buy insurance until it's too late drives up costs for everyone. You might actually convince a Republican of that point, but he'll balk at making people buy insurance as the solution. They'd rather find a way to make it only the problem of the imprudent individual, because their view is that if the individual won't do what he needs to, -- rarely questioning the necessity of any situation and rarely wanting to hear that someone can't do it -- the individual should suffer. Since the liberal doesn't want any individual to suffer, she'll require the individual to take the steps necessary to prevent the suffering. Since the Republican reserves the right to be indifferent to suffering -- he can choose to be charitable if the mood strikes him -- he sees no need to make prudent measures mandatory through law. That only reinforces an undesirable dependence upon government when individuals should figure out necessity for themselves, or else.
"Personal responsibility" is another catchphrase that really only begs questions. Personal responsibility for what? To whom? As long as we live in a political society, it can never be as purely personal as Republicans or libertarians might like -- or at least it can't be as long as society commits itself to the survival of all its members. The rhetoric of personal responsibility sometimes leaves us questioning our fellow citizens' commitment to that ideal.