Who is against individual responsibility?

by on November 6, 2011 at 6:48 am in Philosophy | Permalink

I agree with most of Matt’s recent post, but one sentence struck me as noteworthy.  Matt writes:

I suppose I agree with Will Wilkinson about the importance of “an ethos of initiative, hard work, and individual responsibility” though I have no real idea why he thinks most progressives are against such an ethos.

I could write that sentence without the “I suppose”!  The final clause of the sentence I see as showing just how broad the perceptual gulf between progressives and conservatives/libertarians can be.

I would not quite say that progressives are “against such an ethos,” but where does it stand in their pecking order?  Look at fiction, such as famous left-wing or progressive novels, or for that matter famous left-wing and progressive movies.  How many of them celebrate “an ethos of initiative, hard work, and individual responsibility”?  Is there one?  Maybe as part of a broader struggle against a corrupt system or against “The Man,” but that tripartite of values is not celebrated in its own right.  Do any of these novels and films have business heroes?  To be sure, hard work from labor is celebrated, provided the workers are tough, exploited, but nonetheless hearty and worthy of respect.

I have no problem with praising these novels and movies for their celebrations of social justice, solidarity, or for their unveiling of corruption, but still it is a stretch to those values cited above.  Wanting to blame George Bush, or try Dick Cheney for war crimes, is a kind of individual responsibility, but in a very particular political context.  How often will a progressive stress that the poor should develop greater conscientiousness rather than looking to government support?  Many progressives are genuinely unaware of how unusual a moral code they often are communicating and celebrating, if only implicitly.  Matt in fact is one of the least guilty in this regard, and you can see this when you examine his writings on the Nordic countries.

1 Jonathan November 6, 2011 at 7:58 am

So we are basing this entire theory on fiction. How bout the liberal, “left-wing” movie or television industry they have plenty of examples that might suit your interest. I think we are looking at too narrow of a lens here.

2 Rahul November 6, 2011 at 9:45 am

Tyler’s claim is circular. If we convinced him a movie did indeed celebrate “individual responsibility” ( to his standards ) that might be enough reason to say the movie isn’t “left wing”?

3 Max Kennerly November 6, 2011 at 12:35 pm

Atlas Shrugged celebrates those values as “a broader struggle against a corrupt system.”

More to the point, who wants to watch a movie or read a book with essentially no conflict in it? Either it’s Horatio Alger or it’s “left wing.”

4 mjw149 November 7, 2011 at 2:38 pm

It’s a ridiculous assertion from both authors.

American Conservatives venerate Jesus Christ who was homeless, didn’t have a regular wage-earning job and excoriated the rich.

Liberals in this country still venerate business leaders like Jobs and Bezos and Page and overachievers like Clinton and Obama.

Culturally, American conservatism and liberalism don’t make sense. Bringing up the supposedly relevant entertainment from supposed representatives is rather a dumb approach. To properly study culture as it related to economic outcomes in a less stupid partisan way, why not refer to the classic research on French Folk Tales?


In that context, the continuing scapegoating of ‘welfare queens’ by Fox News and the religous right by libertarians and corporations by liberals tells more about how this happened to our nation, rather than blithely speaking as if American Conservatism and liberalism are unchangeable international religions. They aren’t. They are oddly local phenomenon created by our vast geography and religious leanings. The supposedly ‘debased’ culture of the inner city certainly has parallels to the French research, but so does the smug Conservative view of poverty or the strident white reaction to Vick’s dogfighting.

5 david November 6, 2011 at 8:05 am

The question, I think, is whether progressives think that libertarianism actually rewards “an ethos of initiative, hard work, and individual responsibility” and I think many progressives would reject the idea. They think it rewards luck, silver spoons, and connections. What good demanding that the poor develop conscientiousness if you don’t think a lack of conscientiousness is why they are poor to begin with?

Compare the common summary of the attitude of 99% protesters – “I worked hard given the system and I didn’t get what the system promised me – and someone else flouted the social contract and was amply rewarded for it” – which doesn’t actually conflict with tripartite of initiative, hard work, and individual responsibility. Rather the disagreement is over what one should be responsible [i]for[/i]. If the state of nature doesn’t reward hard work, then the state of men must do so.

6 FYI November 6, 2011 at 9:01 am

This is just a roundabout way to confirm what Tyler said. If you don’t believe the world works in a way that rewards initiative and hard work you don’t value those ideals.

To say that OWS people are simply complaining about the fact that they followed the rules and ‘didn’t get what the system promised’ also shows that they simply don’t understand the system. There are no guarantees. There is no quota of hard work that is needed to achieve a certain objective. If you always look to find someone else but you to blaime you will find it – the housing bubble is a classic example. No one was forced to buy homes they couldn’t afford. Same with not saving enough when they get unemployed, etc, etc.

The truth is that liberals believe luck and social status are the rules and they want more government intervention to balance things out. By definition this goes against the values Tyler described, there is no way around it.

7 Tyler Cowen November 6, 2011 at 9:25 am

Genau, thank you FYI…

8 kent November 6, 2011 at 10:28 am

“If you don’t believe the world works in a way that rewards initiative and hard work you don’t value those ideals.”

This is the strangest thing I’ve read all morning. The world doesn’t reward all sorts of things; I can recognize the world’s disinterest and yet value them! Virginity, say. Truth-seeking independent of reward. Poetry. Blogging. The list goes on and on.

“The truth is that liberals believe luck and social status are the rules and they want more government intervention to balance things out. By definition this goes against the values Tyler described, there is no way around it.”

Also false.

Look, hard work matters. Every liberal parent I’ve ever met wants their kids to work hard. We want our friends to succeed and we know what that takes. When our friends and relatives fail, we can often see that it’s due to a lack of effort on their part. But we can also see when it is NOT due to a lack of effort, but due to the deck being stacked against them. I don’t know what blindness prevents libertarians from seeing the same. Have you guys never, ever had a friend or loved one fail to succeed through no fault of their own?

9 TallDave November 6, 2011 at 11:40 am

But we can also see when it is NOT due to a lack of effort, but due to the deck being stacked against them.

That’s the “individual responsibility” part: not blaming the deck, but accepting responsibility for the way you played the hand — win or lose.

10 Randall Parker November 6, 2011 at 1:18 pm

A lot of people think they worked hard and productively when they didn’t. I think a large fraction of the Left’s misunderstanding on this subject can be attributed to the Dunning-Kruger Effect.

I’ve seen this up close many times where a lousier engineer thinks they are just as good as the better and best engineers. This happens on an even bigger scale when someone who majored in art decides the business execs and engineering managers and hot engineers really can’t be worth multiples of what the art (or theater or comm studies, etc) major can’t imagine how someone can be worth N times more on the job market. They don’t understand and really can’t grasp what those people can do who make N times more. Their model of what those people do is very deficient.

I think the labor market over-rewards low achievers if anything. The range of wages in a given high-skill occupation such as engineering is always far smaller than the differences in productivity would lead one to expect.

11 JonF November 6, 2011 at 3:03 pm

Re: That’s the “individual responsibility” part: not blaming the deck, but accepting responsibility for the way you played the hand — win or lose.

That’s not individual responsibility at all. That’s self-effacing masochism, the ethos of slaves (or at least what masters hope is their slaves’ ethos). Individual responsibility means taking responsibility for your own actions– but not for the actions of others or for the doings of Mother Nature or her wicked step-sister Fortune. If there’s any “responsibility” in the latter cases it’s the responsibiity to fight back. And that can mean peacefully by petitioning for redress of grievance via proper legal channels. Or, if those channels are closed, then by nastier and uglier means– do you really want that sort of society?

This “libertarianism” means liberty only for a small self-glorified Elect, who then preach slavery for the rest. For shame!

12 TallDave November 7, 2011 at 2:29 pm

Internal vs. external locus of control, Jon.

Did you lose that job because your boss was a jerk, or because you didn’t try hard enough to get along?

13 lemmy caution November 7, 2011 at 5:45 pm

I agree.

There are always a ton of stories about how VCs don’t care very much about whether someones last start up failed or not. The link between initiative + hard work and a startup’s success or failure is just too weak.

14 CBear November 8, 2011 at 12:38 am


“Did you lose that job because your boss was a jerk, or because you didn’t try hard enough to get along?”

Sorry to say, your comments like this demonstrate you have little grasp of the real world. Like that’s the only two possibilities. In reality the vicissitudes working for most companies are by and large outside of an individual worker’s control.

How about the highly recognized, high-performing team at the Fortune 100 company I work for that was replaced by team in another country? The manager two levels up did this partially because the “cost savings” would look good on his annual review but mostly because he had a girlfriend (extramarital) in the country that he would then get to visit regularly. Ten people had their work lives completely disrupted from this. It was nice to see a co-worker who was earning top reviews put out of work for more than a year on this one, and others have to take steps backward in their career to keep their job. The punch line: the new team was a failure within a year because most of the employees were using our company’s name as a stepping stone to bigger jobs, and the manager used it as an opportunity to move on to be a VP in a vendor company in the foreign country. By the end of the next year the team was mixed between the remaining few foreign workers and US workers.

Crap like the above happens all the time in the actual world. JonF has it pegged just right.

15 Console November 8, 2011 at 5:06 am

I just came here to comment on TallDave’s card analogy.

Did this guy seriously invoke a GAME OF CHANCE to argue against people seeing luck playing a role in their lives? I understand that someone else made the deck of cards analogy but, jesus christ… that doesn’t mean you have to wallow in incoherence.

Accept responsibility for the way you played the hand… What the hell does that even mean? If I play a hand perfect and lose on a bad beat… no amount of self examination remotely matters. That’s just the nature of randomness.

That’s all I got. Carry on

16 figleaf November 6, 2011 at 2:09 pm

Hmm. Sort of true. The mistake was believing that “the rules” one played by were the actual rules.

I became (by my school-teacher family’s standards anyway) extraordinarily wealthy by virtue of very hard work — specifically taking a temporary job painting a house in a high-tech town. In early October, which meant we were working 10-12 hour days trying to get it done before winter began in earnest. I was replacing a woman, a fellow recent graduate from my college, who’d just been hired to work for a high-tech firm. A few weeks later, since I was in town and most of our other friends were still back in our college town, she gave my name to her boss. Her boss was desperately trying to complete a crash-course-intensity software project. I was interviewed over the phone on a Friday evening, still in my paint clothes, and was told that if I could get some clothes that weren’t covered in paint could I please come in on Monday. I’d had exactly one quarter of Basic programming, another quarter of LISP, and a year of abstract math related to computability and cognition theory.

All of our friends, all equally hard-working and actually educated and sometimes with work experience programming, were unable to make it by Monday. So I got the job and they didn’t. Instead they continued to work hard (and continue to do so to this day) at other firms. Firms that, unlike mine, did not IPO successfully in the 1980s.

I stay in touch with a few of my friends from that era. They remain responsible, full of initiative, and they work damn hard. When I was staying home raising my children many of them earned more per year than I did. But I earned my living from the fraction of my stock options that I diversified out of before the market tanked and, with it, the majority of my erstwhile paper wealth. They? They earn it from the sweat of their brow.

Point being we all played by “the rules.” We all embodied the Franklin-ian virtues Wilkinson laments. But only a moron or an a**hole could look at my friends and I and say our differing degrees of financial success are the result of all pluck and no luck.

But if I just stopped there you’d say “yeah, yeah. The liberal softie proves my point about progressive obsession with luck.”

But I’m not stopping there. Here’s the trick.

Despite the difference in luck my friends continue to display their ethos of initiative, hard work, and personal responsibility. Luck has had exactly nothing to do with whether they had it or not.

Actually, funny thing about that work-ethic business? Unlike the nominally “conservative capitalist” Brian Moynihan none of my very hard-working leftist friends have ever said they were entitled to make a profit, or that they were “incensed” that their companies might be subjected to criticism for very bad products and services. Entitled to a fair shake? You bet. Entitled to be worshiped because they’re in business? Nope. That would be the George Bushes, the Mitt Romneys, the Steve Forbes’s who inherited their luck and pluck, and the Will Wilkinsons who… um… who have pretty much only had the initiative and self-reliance to bravely say how hard-working and resourceful the people who pay him (either in salary, speaking commissions, or subscriptions) are. That’s not really the same thing.

As for left-leaning media about hard work paying off? Um, can’t get much more progressive-left than either Working Girls or Dave. It’s the of year the late-night channels run It’s a Beautiful Life. None of those films are even remotely anti-capitalist, but they’re all unimpeachably politically progressive. I’m sure there are others but to be honest when I was poor I didn’t have the money to watch a lot of movies, when I was rich I didn’t have time, when I was a parent I saw mostly Teletubbies (early on) and Nausicaa and more recently it’s Twilight and Iron Man. (All of which, it occurs to me, tend to be at least vaguely left-leaning but still generally capitalist-friendly and admiring of initiative, hard work, and personal responsibility.) They’re all against committing crimes or moral transgressions that screw people, sure, but the Melanie Griffith character is a very-hard working professional assistant who’s investment research is stolen by her boss, Dave is a hard-working small business man, Beautiful Life is about a scrupulous banker struggling to survive an unscrupulous one, and so on.

Anyway, Tyler, I think Yglesias is generally right and you and Wilkinson are talking through your hat: the conserva-tarian right incorrectly believes success is all about pluck, the progressive left recognizes the reality Horatio Algier also recognized when he named his book… um… “Luck and Pluck.”


17 Tom West November 6, 2011 at 11:20 pm


18 Bill November 7, 2011 at 12:04 am


19 MSL November 7, 2011 at 3:45 am


20 Noah Yetter November 7, 2011 at 9:36 am

Your error is in identifying “achievement of mega-wealth” as “success”. You are successful. Your friends are successful too. The difference between you is small.

OWS may have cast the argument in terms of 99% vs. 1%, but that doesn’t actually align with what anyone cares about. The 99th percentile of income in the US is something north of $500k/yr. The real issue is people that borrowed 35 grand to get a master’s in puppetry and are incensed that they weren’t rewarded by the cosmos with a remunerative career.

You’re right that people claiming they “followed the rules” were mistaken as to what the real rules are. They believed the rules are that you go to a fancy college, major in whatever you want, “work hard” (i.e. manage pass your classes while binge drinking continuously), and then you will get a lovely job doing something “socially responsible” at a non-profit. The actual rules are that you go to a college that makes financial sense, major in something that actually leads to well-paid careers, study more than you party, bust your ass at an internship, and generally do everything you can to get out into the world and make yourself marketable. And still you might fail. If you don’t like that, then well, tough cheese because that’s how it works.

21 lemmy caution November 7, 2011 at 5:51 pm

The $35,000 spent on the puppetry degree didn’t work out, but if the economy was better it actually would have since he could resume working as a drama teacher with a significant bump up in salary.

22 Slocum November 6, 2011 at 9:39 am

There is no quota of hard work that is needed to achieve a certain objective.

This seems fundamental to the problem. The OWS folks seem to be under the misimpression that if you work diligently at whatever strikes your fancy (without any concern for what other people value enough to pay for — including, for example, an expensive MFA in puppetry), then you should be assured a secure, well-paid job. You are under no obligation to discover whether or not there is (and one hesitates to use such a crass word), a market for the skills you plan to develop. The needs and desires of your fellow citizens (as expressed by their willingness to spend their scarce, hard-earned money on what you produce) should have nothing to do with your choices — Instead, taxes should be raised so there are sufficient public sinecures or grants to enable you to follow your bliss wherever it might lead you.

23 Rahul November 6, 2011 at 9:59 am

It’s distracting to convolute the fundamental question of the liberal and conservative ethos with the current OWS spectacle. OWS does not equal “liberal”. There’s plenty of liberals more nuanced and balanced than the OWS crowd.

I think the OWS crowd is misguided too. Expecting puppetry to pay the same as engineering is beyond foolish.

But the picture isn’t as clear-cut as Tyler would have us believe. Yes, responsibility, hard-work and initiative are important but that isn’t all. There’s that pesky issue of initial-conditions. Luck also plays a much larger role than a lot of conservatives would want us to believe. If you average things out over the ensemble of humanity, sure, hard-work would strongly correlate with success. But it’s a mistake to then conclude that every individual that failed did so because of an improper ethos or work-ethic.

24 Claudia Sahm November 6, 2011 at 11:06 am

+1, Rahul (especially on initial conditions) … I would only add that safety nets are important (need not be from the government), so that when bad luck strikes a person can get back up, learn from the failure (as their were likely some poor choices too), and work hard again. It seems to me like some of the people who have “given up” on hard work did not have much help at the bottom.

25 Bill November 6, 2011 at 11:22 am

++2 to Claudia.

26 TallDave November 6, 2011 at 11:51 am

But it’s a mistake to then conclude that every individual that failed did so because of an improper ethos or work-ethic.

I don’t think anyone has ever argued that. Certainly Tyler didn’t. The question is whether they own that failure, or they blame initial conditions.

Again, the “individual responsibility” part seems to be being forgotten here. That part means you acknowledge other people may have advantages, but you’re going to do the best with what you’ve got and own your success or failure — and maybe if you do well enough, your kids can have advantages you didn’t (unless of course progressives like Bill manage to take those advatanges away in their zeal for fairness).

27 Slocum November 6, 2011 at 11:55 am

Yes, responsibility, hard-work and initiative are important but that isn’t all. There’s that pesky issue of initial-conditions.

Of course. Which is why Tyler raised the question of where to rank responsibility vs initial conditions. The argument is that progressives see initial conditions as far more decisive in life than do libertarians. And, along the same lines, to those with a libertarian perspective, progressives appear blind to the negative cultural impact of the belief that we are all highly constrained by the hand we are dealt (with only rare, heroic or extremely lucky exceptions). And, worst of all, progressives seem almost willfully blind to the possibility that their preferred remedies tend to worsen the problems they concerned about. A system featuring a great deal of Schumpeterian change is one where it is difficult for children to inherit their parents positions because those positions don’t survive in the same form from one generation to the next. On the hand, a more static, statist, regulated system is just the one in which nepotism and cronyism are most effective, and familial advantages are most easily be preserved and passed on from one generation to the next.

28 Will November 6, 2011 at 12:19 pm

“…you acknowledge other people may have advantages, but you’re going to do the best with what you’ve got and own your success or failure”

You could theoretically apply this philosophy and convince yourself to be content in any society, no matter how corrupt. But realistically, people won’t accept this if their perception of corruption reaches a certain threshold.
OWS supporters think the system is rigged to an extent that trumps their willingness to blame themselves.
They’re wrong, because this country is not rigged enough that protesting would help you get a job more quickly than spending that time applying, but in 2010 Tunisia the rigging of the system probably trumped individual efforts and your philosophy would just help people rationalize their submission.

29 Bill November 6, 2011 at 10:14 am


I might also add this point: everyone seems to be projecting what they believe is “on the mind” of the Occupy Wall Street crowd as it relates to their economic condition, and from there spins their story.

As best as I can tell, they are not protesting the failure of an economy to support their career choices, but rather that the economy decended into a recession and gave resources to banks and others (ie, investment bankers) who were the beneficiaries at their expense.

You can project whatever beliefs you want to criticize on someone else, and use that strawman to make your point: but, unless that is the clear focus of the protest–which I believe it is not–then all you are doing is engaging in sophistry and not addressing the issues raised by their protest: support of the wall street financial system and its crony capitalism.

30 Bill November 6, 2011 at 9:54 am


Your statement starts out fine–pointing out that liberals believe in equal opportunity and the luck of initial conditions–but ends up CHANGING the metaphor when you say that liberals believe that if you work hard at something==the wrong something, I might add==that liberals support giving rewards for bad career choices.

Where do you get that from? How do you move from a discussion of individual initial conditions and then change it to a discussion about picking a bad choice. One discussion involves initial conditions, the other involves a person making a bad choice.

Rhetoric sometimes involves changing the metaphor in mid course so the audience does not see the trick.

I would suggest that you start with the initial conditions issue, and answer the question: do conservatives believe in correcting for initial conditions and believe in equal opportinuity before the race begins. No one says liberals believe in changing the rewards for a bad volitional decision.

31 FYI November 6, 2011 at 10:42 am

The way i see it, liberals frame problems in a way that matches the way they see the world. For instance, ‘equal opportunity or initial conditions’ are code words that don’t really mean what they seem to mean. It is simply impossible to provide equal conditions to everyone. First, because people themselves are diferent. If you have kids you know that brothers and sisters are different and even within the same house the ‘initial conditions’ will always differ; parents will continue to provide intellectual challenges to kids that go after it, others will provide physical challenges for other kids, so on and so forth. Of course we can agree on providing education opportunities to as many people as possible *but* to believe that we ever will have everyone having exactly the same starting point in whatever aspect of life is just a fantasy.

So at the end of the day, this is yet another way for you to rationalize why people are different: Joe Doe did well because he had better initial conditions; Bob Smith on the other hand, failed because he didn’t have equal opportunity. There goes hard work and innitiative out of the window.

Now, you can also say that conservatives frame problems in a way to match their world view. That’s fine. But don’t try to deny that liberals believe in what they believe, or that things are more nuanced. That to me is simply not looking deep enough into your own arguments.

32 Bill November 6, 2011 at 11:30 am


In the real world, saying “It is simply impossible to provide equal conditions to everyone”, and then walking away is not an answer, and, frankly, it is not one that benefits YOU. If I live in a society that does not try to develop equal opportunity I LOSE.

Think of the production possibility curve for a minute of two societies–one with no actions to provide equal opportunity and one which does try to provide equal opportunity.

33 prior_approval November 6, 2011 at 11:38 am

‘It is simply impossible to provide equal conditions to everyone.’
How convenient – for example, why should one expect all schools in Virginia to be as good as those in Fairfax, since obviously, it would be impossible to distribute revenue in such a way that all schools in the Commonwealth of Virginia would be as well funded as Fairfax’s.

Well, no actually, it would be no problem at all to imagine all schools in Virginia receiving equal funding, even though that is not currently true, as seen from this –
‘The five states with the least equitable funding across school districts in the state in 2009 were: Louisiana, Illinois, Virginia, Montana, and Massachusetts.’ ( http://febp.newamerica.net/background-analysis/no-child-left-behind-act-title-i-school-funding-equity-factor )

And notice this is not exactly a conservative or liberal framework in terms of U.S. states – even more interestingly, if students were receiving essentially the same level of state funding, it would be no problem for students to pick a school within reasonable travelling distance, which could have its funding adapted to the size of its student body, at least within certain limits relating to the building’s capacity.

How would this look? Well, a lot like the current funding practice in Germany, actually, where schools are not locally funded at all. Here, the Bundesland (federal state) provides funding at an equal level, and students are welcome (again, with the restriction of the school building’s capacity) to switch schools.

Just a factual example where providing equal funding to ensure equal conditions is nothing but a matter of actually doing it.

34 FYI November 6, 2011 at 1:13 pm


So is providing equal funding to all schools enough to call the equal conditions clause achieved?

You do understand that the US spends more in public schools than any other nation on earth, right? Are all our kids in a better ‘initial condition’ and we should therefore start giving out money to other country’s public schools?

This is a typical problem with this kind of ideal. Yes, we should continue investing in education and yes, it is an important public good. But to say that we will only be a meritocracy once we reach this nirvana of all kids getting the exact same benefit fom X (school, family, genes, your choice) is a fallacy.

35 FYI November 6, 2011 at 1:17 pm


I am not walking away. You assume that just because I don’t agree with your ideology I will not favor any government intervention. That is incorrect. I donate to private charity and pay taxes. The difference is that I don’t have false expectations on either.

36 Bill November 6, 2011 at 2:46 pm

FYI, I am not asking you to agree with any ideology, I am just asking you to respond to an argument.

37 David Littleboy November 6, 2011 at 10:07 am

It’s not that the world doesn’t reward initiative and hard work, it’s that if 100 people have initiative and hard work, 9.3 of them are going to be unemployed anyway and it’s not their fault. On top of that, the question is how far you are willing to let those 9.3 fall. The right would say (well, is saying) let them starve. The left says we’ve got to do something to help. The right says since there are families where the kids aren’t starving, obviously the families where the kids are starving is the fault of those families and they ought to reap the rewards of their failures. To a leftie, that’s the very definition of amorality.

38 FYI November 6, 2011 at 10:57 am

I was unemployed when the 2001 recession hit. I didn’t think I was being punished or that I the system had failed me. Unemployment is part of the system. The problem is that people don’t prepare for it and expect the government to take care of them no matter what. I am all for keeping people from starving but is that really the problem? Do we have any people starving now in the US at all? The fact that you have to use this kind of hyperbole shows that you are not looking at the problem in the correct way.

BTW, to say that all unemployed are not at fault is typical. That is by definition impossible to tell and at the same time very unlikely.

39 David Littleboy November 7, 2011 at 12:33 am

The thing is, it’s a game of musical chairs and the number of missing chairs doesn’t depend on the initiative and hard work of the players. So anyone talking to you about initiative and hard work is looking for an excuse to not provide a safety net. We’re the richest society humanity has ever known; yet we’re going to let the “blame the unemployed” folks persuade us that we should just let the unemployed, and their children, starve.
“Do we have any people starving now in the US at all?”
Yes. A lot. Whether it’s the 49 million some folks claim can’t afford adequate nutrition or half that, it’s a lot. A lot of people die because they don’t get medical care early enough for easily preventable deaths. On a plethora of things like this, we’re the worst, not the best, of the developed nations.

40 Matthew C. November 6, 2011 at 10:26 am


As Matt Taibbi wrote, Wall Street isn’t winning, it’s cheating.

That’s what the OWS people are fed up with. A crooked system, not a meritocratic one.

41 FYI November 6, 2011 at 10:49 am

“”These people aren’t protesting money. They’re not protesting banking. They’re protesting corruption on Wall Street.”

Really? So is that what Michael Moore means when he says that capitalism is dead?

No one is pro-corruption. Whoever broke a law in WS should be arrested – and many have been. If this is about changing the law, it is very hard to identify exactly what law you guys want to change. If this is about the bailout of banks, it is also incredibly hard to see what is the alternative being proposed by all these ‘dudes’.

42 Andrew' November 6, 2011 at 10:59 am

Let’s get real specific. The banks went bust. They went bust mainly because of bad loans. People stiffed the banks. The government came in to save the banks.

Libertarians have been on this for as long as I know of. What specifically does OWS have a problem with?

43 TC November 8, 2011 at 8:44 am

Why are you complaining about OWS when we had a trillion dollar transfer of wealth to bankers?

You are missing the criminals by 5 orders of magnitude. We have an ongoing bailout in that the fed still owns MBS. Why should they own securities like this?

Why was there an AIG bailout? Why isn’t mazillo in jail? How did JPM have 80 trillion of derivatives on their books during the most volatile financial crisis in history and stay solvent? Why did Goldman execs lie to congress? How did those magnetar trades work out? Why can goldman sell securities its selling on their trading desk? Why didn’t lots of goldman traders lose their jobs instead of moving to brokerage desks over the new rules? What did Hank Paulson know about the Goldman switch in MBS strategy? What did Hank Paulson know about Goldman’s exposure to AIG?

Wall Street isn’t winning, its cheating. I am a professional trader, and certainly don’t begrudge rich people. I know and am friends with a few actual rich people, $100m+ rich. They did not cheat to make their money. Nor do most people.

But what happens at places like Goldman is cheating.

44 Randall Parker November 6, 2011 at 2:01 pm

The most important question: How much of differences in income and wealth is due to cheating, how much to differences in performance, and how much to other factors?

I’d like to see people across the political spectrum polled on this.

45 msgkings November 7, 2011 at 1:55 pm

@ Andrew’

No they went bust because the bad loans were wildly and inappropriately multiplied by leverage and derivatives, because the banks had every incentive to do so and little incentive not to.

The OWS are an inchoate and messy lot, but it’s because their anger is toward something really hard to make so simple and specific. The incentives in modern finance are all screwed up, and I don’t think anyone on earth really knows how to fix them.

46 david November 6, 2011 at 11:09 am

“If you don’t believe the world works in a way that rewards initiative and hard work you don’t value those ideals.”

What sort of Panglossian worldview is this? Surely one can believe that the world as it stands is not the best of all possible universes?

I mean, crime happens and clearly some criminals extract a non-negative income stream from it; this doesn’t mean society approves of crime generally.

47 byomtov November 6, 2011 at 11:33 am

To say that OWS people are simply complaining about the fact that they followed the rules and ‘didn’t get what the system promised’ also shows that they simply don’t understand the system. There are no guarantees.

There are no guarantees? Who is it who doesn’t understand how the world works? The people who want estate taxes abolished?

Of course there are guarantees. For some. And for others there are a different sort of guarantees. Yes, you’ll point out exceptions, but that’s all they are.

The truth is that liberals believe luck and social status are the rules and they want more government intervention to balance things out.

Not all the rules, but some of them, certainly. The first thing I’d like is the acknowledgement, by the smug libertarian children of well-connected upper and upper middle class families, that their hoped for and likely successes in life are not entirely due to their own amazing talents and conscientiousness. The value of government intervention is certainly debatable, as far as I’m concerned. I’m willing to admit that it’s a case by case issue. Yet the hard-headed, clear-eyed libertarian takes, as an article of faith, that intervention must fail, and the “free market” must produce the best possible results.

Who exactly doesn’t understand the world again?

48 Marian Kechlibar November 6, 2011 at 12:00 pm

Interesting. Most libertarians I know are selfmademen (-women), driven to their ideological position either by experience of some heavy-handed government treatment, or by observation of the underclass living for generations on dole.

Then again, Central Europe isn’t the USA, and the ideological alignments here are very different, not least because existence of significant communist parties, which in turn provoke a lot of people to embrace the right-wing more than they would themselves.

49 Skip Intro November 6, 2011 at 7:15 pm

Most libertarians I know (in the US) are the children of the upper middle class whose families have reaped the benefits of 70 years of social welfare programs, and now have convinced themselves that their status is entirely the product of their own oh-so-very-hard work.

50 D November 6, 2011 at 12:02 pm

Personally I think this is why so many Hollywood stars are liberal. Becoming a star is seemingly so random. You can go to auditions for years and never get the “big break” of lore.

51 Marian Kechlibar November 6, 2011 at 12:13 pm

A good observation.

I am a hobbyist singer (without professional ambitions), and I would say that level of “stardom” in music seems to be completely unrelated to the ability of said person to produce good music.

There are absolutely astonishing singers taking $100 jobs in smoky bars right now.

52 byomtov November 6, 2011 at 12:45 pm

It’s not as random as all that. Take a close look and you will find a surprising number of Hollywood successes with parents or other relatives who are successful there as well.

My main point above is that statements like “there are no guarantees” are just sophomoric. Certainly you have better chance of success if you work hard, etc. But before anyone accuses liberals of thinking “It’s all about initial conditions and luck, etc.,” they might look at their own view of the world and ask whether that’s realistic. It’s not just initial conditions. It’s power and cronyism as well. Failed CEO’s walk away with millions; failed car salesmen get fired.

You want hard work? Fine. Guess what. Lots of people work hard – harder than many GMU professors, I bet – and don’t make a lot. Yet when the higher-ups, the Galtian heroes, the entrepreneurs, the big financiers, screw up, it’s the lower-level workers who lose jobs and health insurance and whatnot. The guys who screw up get multi-million dollar bonusues and severance packages. And the libertarians are ready to jump right in dfending all that as necessary and just and efficient. So don’t talk to me about the ethos of hard work, and don’t sneer at liberals about it.

53 Marian Kechlibar November 6, 2011 at 1:16 pm

byomtov, you speak about someone’s projection into liberals, but you’re guilty of the same with regard to libertarians.

The crony capitalism in which “guys who screw up get multi-million dollar bonusues and severance packages” is a bastard child of the affair between big business and government, and is anathema to any libertarian I know.

54 byomtov November 6, 2011 at 1:36 pm

Marian Kechlibar,

The crony capitalism in which “guys who screw up get multi-million dollar bonusues and severance packages” is a bastard child of the affair between big business and government, and is anathema to any libertarian I know.

Meet some more. I’ve seen entirley too many posts and comments here and elsewhere defending absurd pay arrangements and offering all sorts of farfetched theories about why they are justified. And what the government has to do with incestuous boards of directors and the like I don’t know, except insofar as it’s hard for shareholders to oust directors. I have seen more so-called libertarians defend those arrangements than criticize them.

Let me add that your comment about “the affair between big business and government” is a perfect example of blind liberatrianism. Is it even possible for you to imagine that things could go badly even if government is not involved?

55 Eric H November 6, 2011 at 3:40 pm

+1 for “Failed CEO’s walk away with millions; failed car salesmen get fired. ”

-1 for “And the libertarians are ready to jump right in d[e]fending all that as necessary and just and efficient.”

Just as there are different flavors of liberals, there are different flavors of libertarians. The libertarians who defend this are what Kevin Carson calls “vulgar libertarians.” Do we even have a term for big-business-defending liberals? Because they do exist. They’re the ones who insist we should vote Democrat because business does so much better under them. That would include most of the DailyKos denizens. Ezra Klein has written several times about how superior big business is to small business (I would like to link to his 9 Dec 2005 article, but the links are broken), and he isn’t alone. Raising barriers to entry is exactly the purpose of much industrial regulation (CPSIA, for example, or everything covered by Kolko in Triumph of Conservatism or Railroads and Regulation), and mandated increases to overhead costs cannot help but benefit larger enterprises. It is the pro-state left and right (in which camp the vulgar libertarians fall), not the left-libertarians which defend these businesses as just and efficient.

56 Marian Kechlibar November 6, 2011 at 4:03 pm

@byomtov: Re: Let me add that your comment about “the affair between big business and government” is a perfect example of blind liberatrianism. Is it even possible for you to imagine that things could go badly even if government is not involved?

Of course it is. Large corporations and government have a lot of common. The common dynamics of “cover-your-ass” attitude of the bureaucrats and the principle of promoting people beyond their level of competence are basically the same.

The problem is usually more pronounced in government, though, because it has more power – of both the legal and financial sort – and not much personal responsibility. As such, it attracts crooks mightily.

(The Church in the Middle Ages had precisely the same problem: too much power and money without direct responsibility. The historical consequences weren’t amusing, not least in my home country, which suffered enormously in religious wars in the 15th and 17th century.)

57 byomtov November 6, 2011 at 5:19 pm

Eric H.,

OK. Some libertarians don’t defend this. But they sure don’t make a lot of noise about it. And to be blunt, what I read here does suggest to me that many are quite comfortable with it, and happy to shoehorn events to fit their theories.

How many screeds have appeared on this site vigorously defending exorbitant pay levels?

58 JonF November 6, 2011 at 2:56 pm

Re: There are no guarantees.

Why not? Serously. Yes, I understand that “stuff happens” and humankind, lacking godlike abiities even nowadays, can never provide ironclad guarantees. But shouldn’t there be some pretty solid guarantees that if you do X, Y and Z, then A, B, and C will likely result for you. Otherwise what’s the point of striving at all if the world is totally capricious, a playground for the goddess Fortuna and her minions? If you think conscientiousness, hardwork and responsbility are good things then reward them! You wouldn’t raise a child or train an animal without rewarding them for good deeds– why do you think that works when dealing with adult humans?

And yes, the government should be the arbiter of rules. Who else? God doesn’t want the job evidently, and the aforementioned goddess Fortuna isn’t to be trusted.

59 jibs November 6, 2011 at 4:52 pm

@JonF (and @kent) – You nailed it. It’s the ethos of slaves. The belief in the Just World Fallacy is just *disgusting*. If the game is rigged, you do not just “accept your lot.” Sick. Just SICK.

60 babar November 6, 2011 at 8:15 am

who says “let’s distribute resources and power to people who are responsible and hard-working”? nobody, as far as i can tell. the market and private property rights don’t do that.

61 kent November 6, 2011 at 10:29 am

Well said!

62 vic November 6, 2011 at 8:26 am

I would argue that Neocons are against personal or sovereign responsibility since by reading National Review, Obama and his lack of military intervention in the Middle East is the source of all evil. By leaving Iraq, he is to blame for any of its future troubles.

Similar to how people blame European nations for having weak militaries yet the US was spending the money on the guns for them, so they might as well spend the money on butter.

63 Randall Parker November 6, 2011 at 2:04 pm

To be fair, the neocons aren’t really conservatives.

64 GeorgeNYC November 6, 2011 at 8:26 am

I thought the whole beauty of the free market system was that we did not have to “teach” anyone anything? I thought the point was that if we just get government out of the way the “natural” instincts of man will take over and create. But now youa re imlying that the “free market” system needs encouragement thrugh the creation of fictional “business heroes.” Heroes require values not markets.

65 Andrew November 6, 2011 at 8:27 am

If you write a novel celebrating an ethos of initiative, hard work, and individual responsibility, your novel will be characterised as conservative/libertarian.

66 Tim November 6, 2011 at 10:50 am

Conservatives/libertarians need to take personal responsibility for the fact that they can’t write stories the market is interested in buying.

67 TallDave November 6, 2011 at 12:13 pm

I would imagine the audience for novels, plays, and movies skews a bit left-liberal (which somewhat weakens conservatives’ complaints about bias). I would be fascinated to see a study.

Conservatives apparently are more interested in things like talk radio, while progressives seem less so. Is Air America still around, or did they finally go under?

68 Rahul November 6, 2011 at 12:43 pm

What about NPR for radio. That seems to have a left-liberal following.

69 TallDave November 6, 2011 at 1:44 pm

Does NPR have much talk radio? I thought they were more of a news format.

At any rate, the talk radio programming and audience appear to be dominated by the right.

According to Arbitron, the top five programs are Rush Limbaugh, Sean Hannity, Glenn Beck, Mark Levin, and Michael Savage.

Pew researchers found in 2004 that 17% of the public regularly listens to talk radio…45% describe themselves as conservatives, compared with 18% who say they are liberals.[2]


70 karl November 6, 2011 at 5:11 pm

I wouldn’t call it a following, most of us listen to it because there is no real news/public affairs alternative. Many on the far left hate NPR — they think it’s a corporate shill.

71 Turner November 6, 2011 at 8:29 am

Progressives simply feel that when libertarians talk about ‘an ethos of initiative, hard work, and individual responsibility’ they are talking about maintaining the status quo and corporate freedom, rather than actual individual freedom.

72 Andrew' November 6, 2011 at 9:05 am


73 David Littleboy November 6, 2011 at 10:11 am

Because singling the praises of initiative and hard work absolves them of responsibility for the 9.3% of the workforce the economy can’t provide jobs for. If it’s the unemployed’s fault for being unemployed, then there’s no need for government to help the unemployed.

74 Marian Kechlibar November 6, 2011 at 10:27 am

No and no.

The 9.3% is not a constant, and will change depending on the business cycle, migration patterns, even on season.

The whole fault/need to help logic is also flawed, or too simplistic to be real. There is plenty of people who will be for helping “faulty” people – basically the entire Christianity is stacked on the ethos of a corrupt, sinning man. On the other hand, libertarians do not care whether someone’s bad economic situation was their fault or no – they consider the governmental intervention as potentially destructive in both cases.

75 Matthew C. November 6, 2011 at 10:43 am

Many so-called “libertarians” have completely lost the plot.

We don’t have a free market meritocratic system where a segment of people can’t make it and are thereby protesting via OWS. We have a sclerotic, bureaucratized system lurching towards economic fascism where the TBTF win, the Fed printing press steals from the prudent and gives to the reckless, government subsidies force people into debt peonage in order to purchase a work permit (aka college degree) and when they can’t find a job they can’t file bankruptcy and walk away like the oligocrats can and do every day. Not even to mention the unimaginable levels of debt we are leaving our children and grandchildren that we expect them to pay. Bad news, feckless boomers. Our kids and grandkids are going to shrug off this yoke of debt iniquity, very soon, that they had no part in creating.

76 Andrew' November 6, 2011 at 11:04 am

No, we’ve been on this for at least 14 years, that’s how long I’ve been on it, it’s just that our rhetoric doesn’t have to change because we had the problem diagnosis right in the first place.

77 D November 6, 2011 at 12:06 pm

I don’t think the average libertarian would describe the last 20 years of public policy — whether done by Republicans or Democrats — as consistent with their ideals.

78 Matthew C. November 6, 2011 at 2:21 pm

Look, I am a libertarian.

I am saying — many (other) libertarians are ridiculing OWS and the protesters, unfairly.

79 Slocum November 6, 2011 at 12:24 pm

But then liberals advocate policies that make it easier for the powerful to maintain their positions. When maintaining one’s wealth and rank requires business success sustained over decades and generations in a free market, virtually no family will be able to manage it. But when maintaining wealth and rank relies on political influence, connections, and cronyism, then dynasties are much more feasible.

80 Will McCullam November 6, 2011 at 8:30 am

pfui, for films there’s A nous La Liberte; African Queen, and Yentl. Books, lots of kid’s books like Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of N.I.M.H., or H.G. Wells, Tono-Bungay; or Neville Shute, like Trustee From the Toolroom.

81 David Clayton November 6, 2011 at 8:34 am

Just curious – what are the “famous left-wing or progressive novels, or for that matter famous left-wing and progressive movies”?

82 bluto November 6, 2011 at 9:38 am

The Jungle comes to my mind first. Grapes of Wrath might be more famous, though. http://www.americanprogress.org/issues/2008/02/25films.html this was a pretty decent list of films. Notice how frequently a lone hero exposing treachery or injustice in the system is the main plot feature.

83 David Clayton November 6, 2011 at 12:06 pm

Is there a comparable list for works that are supposedly “right-wing”?

84 Andrew' November 6, 2011 at 8:42 am

The comment I left on Will’s site was something to the effect that you can’t look at a tail heads up and determine from that information alone whether it got there by luck, skill, or cheating.

The meme going around now and most popularized by the Senate candidate from Massachusetts is that the filthy rich owe society for their success. Well, I’m not sure how someone can square the circle that society is the benefit that grants ill-gotten wealth (I’m not saying anyone in particular believes that in those exact words) and I’m not sure how someone can know that success comes because of rather than despite any particular aspect of society, particularly those aspects that don’t exist yet, such as Obamacare.

85 Chris November 6, 2011 at 8:53 am

Sounds like you’re saying conservatives believe in anecdotes while liberals believe in statistics o-o

86 Andrew' November 6, 2011 at 9:06 am

I would say liberals believe statisticians.

87 Marian Kechlibar November 6, 2011 at 10:30 am

Small lie, big lie, statistics.

I am happy to believe, say, the population count, but when it comes to effects of some policy on the GDP, the incentive to lie or mess with the data is just too big.

Just recently, the eurozone is in its potential death throes because of extensive book cooking on the southern flank.

If there are too many anecdotes obviously contradicting some statistics, you shouldn’t worship the latter and disregard the first. It’s done by people – it can be faulty or incomplete.

88 MD November 6, 2011 at 10:36 am

A flattering interpretation for a liberal, but how are you drawing that out of what he said?

89 Randall Parker November 6, 2011 at 4:38 pm

There’s a thing called confirmation bias where one can use lots of statistics which agree with one’s point of view while ignoring lots of others stats. It is a frequent liberal assertion that liberals are more driven by empirical evidence. They usually make that assertion while making some other assertion that they believe obvious.

90 beamish November 6, 2011 at 9:06 am

Do any of these novels and films have business heroes?

What’s the relation between this and an ethos of individual responsibility? Do the dilemmas of a businessman illustrate the problems of responsibility better than the dilemmas of a police detective, space ship captain, superhero, country singer, or vampire?

91 Marian Kechlibar November 6, 2011 at 10:32 am

Well, there are way more businessmen than space ship captains, and yes, they often solve ethical dilemmas in their work.

92 beamish November 6, 2011 at 11:09 am

You may have missed my point. The fact that the hero of a movie is a businessman doesn’t show anything about the movie’s attitude toward responsibility and hard work. The villian of Wall Street and the moral hero is a union president, but the movie is in favor of hard work and individual responsibility. The heroes (and villains) of Trading Places are businessmen (and a prostitute) but the movie isn’t really a story about the value of hard work or individual responsibility. It’s partly a movie about how flukish monetary success is.

93 Marian Kechlibar November 6, 2011 at 11:47 am

Yes, I did. Reading comprehension failure on my part. Sorry.

94 Charlie November 6, 2011 at 9:15 am

The West Wing is widely considered a liberal show. It is filled with stories of initiative, hard work and individual repsonsibility. The characters are often taking initiative to influence gov’t in ways that wouldn’t occur without their initiative. Sometimes its a clever way to influence the process, sometimes its a persuasive argument that changes the way the inner circle thinks. The characters work ridiculously hard and long hours. Finally, the show makes clear that the change is caused by certain individuals, often they are called to a task by some important moment or experience.

I don’t tend to think of literature as conservative vs. liberal, so I’m not sure what examples Tyler has in mine. But that is the first show that popped in my mind as being “liberal” and it serves as a counter example.

[There was also a show called The Philanthropist that I liked that starred a rich, liberal business leader trying to do good in the world, but it only lasted about a third of a season.]

95 John November 6, 2011 at 9:20 am

“Once” and “In America”

96 Andrew' November 6, 2011 at 9:21 am

Has Matt spent much time in an academic department? You want to see mercenary behavior at it’s peak, go there. And that is a place virtually devoid of money.

97 Dave November 6, 2011 at 9:24 am

I believe your premise is incorrect.

Liberals believe in an ethos of initiative, hard work and personal responsibility towards the betterment of “society-at-large.” Conservatives believe in those same ethos for the betterment of the “individual.”

98 Jonas November 6, 2011 at 1:24 pm

That’s quite perceptive way. But, the current problems transcend left and right and here is why. Today, the crony capitalists believe in an ethos of initiative, hard work and personal responsibility “at the expense of” society.

They discount the integrity of the system (see the banking crisis) and treat it like economic commons they can loot without cost. Small (relatively speaking – we’re talking millions v. billions here) individual gains at the expense of large societal losses become an acceptable and popular strategy. That’s a net loss for everyone.

99 Randall Parker November 6, 2011 at 4:42 pm

What percentage of all wealthy people made most of their money by privatizing profit while socializing costs? I mean, sure, some do. But even most? One needs to look at lots of particular billionaires or multi-millionaires and try to come up with ways to quantify whether they made their money by basically unfairly sticking other people with big costs. Otherwise it is just argument by assertion.

100 Jonas November 7, 2011 at 4:41 pm

I support that kind of study and I believe some of it (the egregious cases) can even be done by the DOJ.

101 Albert Ling November 6, 2011 at 9:26 am

In Brazil, the left is openly against individual responsibility.

Here is a recent strike in my city of Porto Alegre:

Banner literally says: “Union of State Employees against Reform and Meritocracy”. This after proposals to have SOME link between pay and performance (today it’s just “seniority” lol).

102 joselitus_maximus November 7, 2011 at 11:25 pm

“… Banner literally says: “Union of State Employees against Reform and Meritocracy”…”

No, it says: “Forum of the Public Employees of the State of RS(Rio Grande do Sul) – No to Welfare Reform and Meritocracy”. State like in California or Texas, not THE State.

The small squarish ones say: “Governor Tarso, No One Messes With Our Careers”

What Albert Ling CONVENIENTLY forgot to explain is that governor Tarso Genro is from a LEFTIST party, the PT – Partido dos Trabalhadores (Worker’s Party), Brasil’s biggest left party.

Basically, what I mean is that Albert Ling’s comment is useless as evidence for a “Who is against individual responsibility?” discussion, since it is basically about an left vs. left struggle.

“Meritocracy” is a tainted word around here in Brasil, since it was abused to justify way too many crappy management decisions. It became code-word for “Mass Layoff”. That’s what they imply in the banner. “No to Mass Layoffs”.

Also, here, any category of workers has SEVERAL competing unions, some are actually center-right, and OF COURSE, they may defend their particular interests even it contradicts their supposed political orientation.

103 Bill November 6, 2011 at 9:29 am

I don’t know how, as a conservative, you can have ““an ethos of initiative, hard work, and individual responsibility” unless you believe in an equal opportunity.

Otherwise, if you put your thumb on the scale, or deny equal opportunity or fail to support it, you are NOT rewarding hard work, initiative, and individual responsiblity.

You are just rewarding the initial condition with which a person starts out–his fathers or families wealth.

So, to pose the question a different way: “I would not quite say that conservatives or libertarians are “against such an ethos { equal opportunity and correction for initial conditions },” but where does it stand in their pecking order?”

104 Marian Kechlibar November 6, 2011 at 10:39 am


what is precisely “equal opportunity”? People will never be the same, they’re not robots; someone will always be better-looking, healthier or cleverer.

The conditions also change during lifetime. Steve Jobs for all his money didn’t have “equal opportunity” shared by 95 per cent Americans – namely, to celebrate his 60th birthday.

I can’t speak for the entire right wing, being a strange mix of libertarian and a fiscal conservative (not a social one), but myself, I celebrate the ethos of “hard work, initiative, and individual responsibility” because it is self-rewarding: usually, it leaves you much better off than its opposite, and not just in personal property, but also in your own mind. Blaming “them” mutilates the soul in the long term.

105 Bill November 6, 2011 at 11:04 am

What is “precisely” equal opportunity, you ask.

You’ve set a pretty high standard there, haven’t you, making it difficult to succeed, but, let me try, using a persons life as a metaphor.

1. Pre-birth–access to prenatal care, training to equate everyone’s awareness of fetal development with mother’s nutrition, nutritional support for an impoverished mother if necessary.
2. Birth and postnatal–access to pediatric healthcare to prevent childhood diseases and deformity;
3. Childhood development–preschool opportunities, reading support
4. Gradeschool and high school–equivalent educational opportunities
5. Post high school–access to schooling–vocational or college–independent of parents initial wealth condition but with a payback of loans
6. Social insurance–basic disability, survivor, health–paid for by everyone and available to everyone–as these insurable events, if they happen, can throw you off the track to competitive self-attainment. Programs which mandate savings via withholding to pay for items that would be consumed as charity and shifted to others if withholding were not taken. I can make a very good argument, by the way, that social insurance is cheaper than individually rated insurance, and direct you to Robert Shiller’s finance class at oyc.yale.edu for a discussion of this, but basically it is the law of large numbers and adverse selection and a few other features that make it attractive.
7. Laws prohibiting racial, gender, religious discrimination in the workplace and public facilities.

We all share the ethos of hard work. We should share the GOAL of equal opportunity. We will all be better off–think of that production possibility curve of an equal opportunity society v. one that is not.

106 The Anonymouse November 6, 2011 at 2:18 pm

“Blaming ‘them’ mutilates the soul in the long term.”


107 TallDave November 6, 2011 at 11:23 am

You’e doing exactly Tyler described: you’re putting fairness ahead of “an ethos of initiative, hard work, and individual responsibility.”

“You didn’t succeed? Well, that wasn’t because you didn’t work hard enough or get a degree in petrochemical engineering instead of puppetry, no it was because your parents weren’t rich and government didn’t do enough to give you a better opportunity. We’re going to fix that, by taking away stuff from people who did succeed.” That’s certainly not personal responsibility, and it punishes success.

108 Jonas November 6, 2011 at 1:33 pm

Does individual responsibility means being responsible for things that are outside your control? Or that are inherently uncontrollable?

I think you’re stretching the concept too far if it means that no matter what happens, you are solely responsible for your result. What if you were physically robbed on the way to deposit your paycheck?

By stretching that term, you’re closing off the debate before it’s even started.

109 The Anonymouse November 6, 2011 at 2:23 pm

No, you are not responsible for those events that are truly outside of your control.* You are responsible, however, for how you react to them, whether it be giving up and deciding that you’d rather be a professional victim, or be getting back at it and continuing to work at the betterance of your life.

*I’m thinking hurricanes and earthquakes here, not ‘I can’t find a job in this economy.’

110 Jonas November 6, 2011 at 3:33 pm

Exactly. The limits of your individual responsibility is what is being debated. And there’s always a notion of fairness in making that judgment.

By invoking fairness, liberals are not giving up on notion of individual responsibility. It’s part and parcel of individual responsibility.

Most agree that getting robbed on the way to depositing your paycheck is outside the scope of your individual responsibility. We resort to collective action to solve that, rather than make everyone a vigilante.

So is the gross malfunctioning of the banking/financial system, as demonstrated by the recent financial crisis. Why shouldn’t we demand some collective action to solve that problem, rather than leave everyone to their own defenses?

And if you think a few band-aids will solve that problem, you’re less hard-nosed than most capitalists aspire to be.

111 TallDave November 7, 2011 at 2:55 pm

It’s really more about an internal vs. external locus of control.

This is a big topic in the self-help movement. It’s very, very easy and seductive to blame things “outside of my control” for failure.

So there was a housing bubble that popped, and you’re underwater, and you lost your job. Do you blame “the system” for that, or do you blame yourself for buying too much house and getting into a field that wasn’t as stable as others? Could you have worked harder? Could you have networked better? Etc.

112 Jonas November 7, 2011 at 4:43 pm

Why can’t it be both? As citizens, don’t we have a duty to perfect the union? If there is a gaping hole in the system, we should recognize it.

113 TallDave November 7, 2011 at 8:33 pm

Sure, it can be both. But which one you feel is more paramount tells us whether you value an ethos of individual responsibility.

114 Randall Parker November 6, 2011 at 4:45 pm

We can’t really have equal opportunity because we don’t have equal drive and ability. One has to adjust for IQ and show that, say, a 130 IQ person born into a family with $1 million in net worth is going to be making x dollars more per year than a 130 IQ person born into a family with net worth of $50k. Quantify the differences in outcomes once IQ has been adjusted for and liberals can begin to make a claim for unequal opportunity once adjusted for ability.

115 Max B. November 6, 2011 at 9:34 am

Just for fun, let’s start coming up with examples of “left-wing/progressive” texts that celebrate hard work, initiative, and individual responsibility, or have heroes who were businessmen.

“Schindler’s List” – made by clearly left-wing Steven Spielberg, the hero is a successful businessman and the film clearly supports the notion that we have an individual moral responsibility, not merely a collective one – “I could’ve done more, this ring” etc.

“Brazil” – a distinctly Hayekian vision of government bureaucracy.

“The Farnsworth Invention” – play by Aaron Sorkin, notedly left-wing. Supports the hard-working, resourceful ingenuity of the inventor against the power of the moneyed rent-seeking corporatist class that seeks to profit off the hard work of others. In fact, there are tons of examples of movies that support hard-working inventors; it is often that progressive texts portray businesspersons as exploiting the hard work, resourcefulness, and talents of others, which constructs an implicit argument that progressivism is actually more embracing of capitalist values than conservatism, since it tries to allow the benefits of success to flow to those who truly “deserve” it as opposed to the pre-existing holders of capital who simply manipulate the system. Good examples of this are “The Informant,” “The Insider,” “Michael Clayton,” and “Wall Street,” which all to some degree support labor rather than capital, oppose rent-seeking or unpriced externalities. Progressive arguments against crony capitalism are often arguments for better capitalism.

“High and Low” – a film that clearly respects the hard work and up-by-his-bootstraps ethos of its protagonist while still posing drastic income inequality as a social cancer.

“Die Hard” – pitting the hard work and “above-and-beyond-the-call-of-duty” values of a public servant against the “greed-is-good” corporate mentality of the 1980s.

Anyway, I could go on. I think the conclusion is that plenty of progressive and left-wing texts celebrate hard work, individual responsibility, initiative, etc; it’s just that few of them celebrate it in the service of money making at the expense of social good.

116 MD November 6, 2011 at 10:56 am

“Anyway, I could go on. I think the conclusion is that plenty of progressive and left-wing texts celebrate hard work, individual responsibility, initiative, etc; it’s just that few of them celebrate it in the service of money making at the expense of social good.”

I believe this is a misinterpretation of what Tyler’s getting at, as is indicated when he mentions conscientiousness. It’s not that these kinds of films don’t show earnest characters who work hard. What he’s getting at is clarified if you get the main idea of Will’s original article: that people can and should exercise agency to improve their own lives. Characterizing the kind of prudent decision making that would improve a person’s material circumstances as mere money-grubbing is precisely part of the problem.

I don’t think I would agree with him that there are no films by avowedly “liberal” filmmakers that express this theme–it depends on exactly how an individual creator thinks and how the creation comes together. But I think there’s definitely a bias toward a disdain for business, and often a quite purposeful, ideologically driven attempt to demonize it. All employer-employee relationships are harsh and dehumanizing; all businesses are generally prepared to pollute, injure, and even kill to get what they want. The inference “Bhopal incident (etc.)-> business is inherently evil” is no more logically tenable than “Jeffrey Dahmer (etc.) -> humanity is evil”, both indicating a rather crude, merely associative reasoning process. This sort of ideological slant can be present in greater or lesser degrees in particular movies, but the bias is there.

(I’d just note that I don’t usually let such a bias interfere with my enjoyment of an otherwise well made movie.)

117 Tim November 6, 2011 at 11:01 am

I’m a writer. I can tell you the secret. In 99% of cases the story of a self-made man working hard to amass wealth is tediously boring. Think about it. Would you watch a story where a guy went into the office every day and got some promotions? Now there are some exceptions to that. “The Social Network” is exactly the sort of conservative story Tyler is talking about. But by and large most of those stories are incredibly boring and tedious. It’s not enculturation. It’s that unexceptional hard work is something we’re all acquainted with and are not interested in “escaping” into.

118 MD November 6, 2011 at 11:04 am

This is a good observation.

119 TallDave November 6, 2011 at 11:25 am

Everyone wants to be a millionaire, few want to put in 40 years of 70 hour workweeks.

120 Tim November 6, 2011 at 11:30 am

And fewer still want to watch that unfold dramatically.

121 Bill November 6, 2011 at 2:45 pm

I am sure the puppeteer is willing to put in 40 years of 70 hour workweeks to be a millionaire, just as I am sure that the winner of an estate lottery — the person who inherits a lifetime fortune — is unwilling to work 5 hours.

Who said 70 hour workweeks makes you a millionaire.

Just ask some farmworker.

122 Marian Kechlibar November 6, 2011 at 4:07 pm

I think that no serious person disputes the fact that it matters WHAT are you actually doing.

Well, maybe except the puppeteer in question.

123 ice9 November 8, 2011 at 7:43 am

The puppeteer is a good example of both sides of the problem. He left a public school teaching job to get his puppeteering masters in order to get a pay bump from NYC schools, who (like many schools) give extra salary for extra credentials. Puppeteering was in his discipline (he was a theatre teacher) so it qualified for the salary, but the guy didn’t want to be a puppeteer. He just wanted to get his old job back and earn more money, then maybe wait for his big break in puppeteering until he could cast aside the drudgery of teaching aside once and for all, and (this is a guess of course) earn the same doing what he loved, presumably, which is whatever puppeteers do. The error: He did the degree full time–left his job–and when he came back he didn’t have a job anymore. Lots of teachers–I’ve done the research, and it’s over 70%–do a masters either with their BS before they start teaching, or part time while they’re teaching. It takes resources to stop teaching full time to return to school (only significant group who do this are married women, that most pampered subset.) This is partly because the masters doesn’t really confer much in the way of advantage or special skill to teachers; it’s just for salary. But trust me–teaching full time and doing graduate classes, even the dusty pro-forma crap that constitutes your standard MeD, is hard work. Teaching is hard work, too, but puppeteering? I’m not sure. Ask Limbaugh.


124 karl November 6, 2011 at 10:09 am

“How often will a progressive stress that the poor should develop greater conscientiousness rather than looking to government support?”

The ‘government support’ many progressives look at first is the one that we think best promotes that elusive equality of opportunity: schools. Is anyone on the right against good schools?

The first film that came to mind: Norma Rae.

125 joan November 6, 2011 at 10:15 am

Usually when I hear someone advocate personal responsibility it is followed by a denial that they have any responsibility to correct problems they did not personally cause.

126 kent November 6, 2011 at 10:37 am

Bill Cosby.
Malcolm X.
Stokely Carmichael.
Louis Farrakhan.

127 Tim November 6, 2011 at 10:37 am

Oh, poor conservatives. Always complaining about someone else not taking personal responsibility, but never willing to do the hard work of writing the stories you complain about not existing. Lazy conservatives. You want socialized story telling.

128 Marian Kechlibar November 6, 2011 at 10:41 am

The sneering aside, Tolkien or Kipling were conservative authors and they are considered sort-a fascist anathema by the Left these days.

129 Tim November 6, 2011 at 10:55 am

What Left are you referring to here? Pretty much every liberal I know loves Tolkien, and I know of no one who doesn’t read Kipling because of his political views. The only people I don’t read based on politics are the authors of those “Republican|Democrats are dumb stupid-head” books.
Of course, I suppose it’s also worth noting that I’m a US Democrat, but by real political standards I’m quite conservative. I’m only a liberal in the US where Republicans have destroyed the meaning of that word.

130 Marian Kechlibar November 6, 2011 at 11:25 am

We might know a different Left.

For the communist part, that is unfortunately quite frequent in Europe, Tolkien is anathema because they feel themselves portrayed as Mordor. (The books were actually banned in the Soviet Bloc).

For the multicultural part, Kipling is anathema because of his attitude towards colonialism.

131 TallDave November 6, 2011 at 11:36 am

OTOH I do sometimes wonder how many people don’t realize White Man’s Burden was written ironically about the U.S. occupation of the Philippines.

132 Marian Kechlibar November 6, 2011 at 11:39 am

I didn’t know that either, but my knowledge of Kipling is entirely self-made, we haven’t had him in any school (well, the Czech schools mostly concentrate on Czech writers, sometimes fairly obscure ones).

That said, I observed that Kipling is some kind of Emmanuel Goldstein for the loony part of the British Left – just mentioning him may provoke a 2-minute rage session.

133 TallDave November 6, 2011 at 1:48 pm

True. Personally I think The Gods of the Copybook Headings should be required reading in public schools, though I imagine quite a few heads would explode.


134 JonF November 6, 2011 at 3:14 pm

Re: Tolkien is anathema because they feel themselves portrayed as Mordor. (The books were actually banned in the Soviet Bloc).

Odd, because most people who think LOTR was allegorical saw Mordor as the Nazis.

135 Marian Kechlibar November 6, 2011 at 4:04 pm

JonF – talk to some Reds from the former East Bloc, then.

136 Bill November 6, 2011 at 11:37 am


If you were writing for some of these audiences, you would have to write for a mildly autistic audience–one that did not see suffering and react to it; one that did not see unfairness and react to it; one that did not see a lack of equal opportunty as a “bad thing”

The fact that we don’t see that type of writing tells me more about the size of a slightly autistic audience than it does about the general public.

Sympathy is a human emotion. Its hard to write against that emotion, unless you don’t have it.

137 Marian Kechlibar November 6, 2011 at 11:46 am

Sympathy is also a very personal emotion. It is hard to genuinely sympathize with huge masses of people.

138 TallDave November 6, 2011 at 12:00 pm

Ah, the “libertarians and conservatives are mentally ill” argument. Classy.

139 Bill November 6, 2011 at 12:43 pm

TallDave, Actually, its an occupational hazard for an economist, or perhaps it is a selective attribute that attracts people to the economics profession.

In playing the Dictator Game referred to below, economists generally are unfazed with “unfair” divisions–and differ from the general population.

140 TallDave November 7, 2011 at 2:45 pm

Bill, Bill, Bill. Imagine a sentence that begins “If you were writing for a left-liberal audiences, you would have to write for a mildly retarded audience, one that doesn’t recognize the connection between incentive and result but can only think in terms of emotion…”

141 Bill November 6, 2011 at 12:40 pm

Tim, The other emotion you would be writing against is the repulsive reaction to unfairness. You might want to look up what is called the “Dictator Game”–basically, where one person gets to divide a pie, with the other accepting or rejecting, and, if rejected, neither get. Small devisions elicit big emotional responses to unfairness. I use the game as a lead up in a pricing class to illustrate how you have to be careful with some forms of detectable price discrimination, even if you could do it, if it is perceived as unfair by your customer.

142 Ultimatum Game IMO November 6, 2011 at 2:11 pm

Dictator game doesnt have accept or reject….thus the word “dictator”

143 Bill November 6, 2011 at 2:53 pm

You are correct…ultimatum game.

When you play so many games, you mix them up.

Thanks for the catch.

The Dictator game has a similar result (I’ll get even with you) if you ask for cooperation in the second and subsequent rounds.

144 Rich Berger November 6, 2011 at 11:04 am


The comments made here by the left-leaners confirm your point.

145 TallDave November 6, 2011 at 11:15 am

“an ethos of initiative, hard work, and individual responsibility” though I have no real idea why he thinks most progressives are against such an ethos.

I think Tyler is right — this is a perceptual gulf based on priorities.

In Matt’s world, all these things are fine an wonderful, yes, but he nevertheless advocates policies that will punish and erode such an ethos because he believes “fairness” is much more important.

Conservatives and libertarians, otoh, want to encourage such an ethos through proper incentives that reward an ethos of initiative, hard work, and individual responsibility and punish its opposite, because they believe this more important than fairness (and is less coercive, a moral good in its own right for libertarians).

So the two sides have utterly opposite views, despite agreeing these things are good, because of the relative priority they place on other things.

This is much like the comment the other day where someone expressed shock that Tyler seemed to be arguing progressives were against charitable giving. Well, they aren’t really, but they definitely want coercive redistribution first — and then if you want to give more on top of that, they’re all for it. But of course a dollar already coerced away cannot be freely given.

146 Svante November 6, 2011 at 11:20 am

Nope, this is your fantasy of what liberals believe. The actually ideological “gulf” in America is quite small — there just isn’t that big a spread of viewpoints in contemporary politics. But we like to blow up these minor differences into caricatures.

147 TallDave November 6, 2011 at 11:28 am

Nonsense. If he didn’t believe fairness was more important than “an ethos of initiative, hard work, and individual responsibility” then why would he advocate policies that promote fairness at their expense?

148 Svante November 6, 2011 at 1:52 pm

This is sort of a painfully dumb question to have to answer, but here goes: every single person on the planet believes that more than one thing is important, and — to the extent that we consciously weigh such matters — we prefer a mix of policies that strike a practical balance between various outcomes and principles. Duh. The incredibly weird implication of your question is that a conservative is a person who will oppose any policy that doesn’t maximize an ethos of initiative. After all, any policy that is less than maximizing of such an ethos by definition promotes other things at hard work’s expense. It is plainly false that actual conservatives or libertarians vote this way — to their credit.

Another response to your incredibly stupid question is that we already have a system in place that promotes an ethos of initiative. It’s called capitalism, and I don’t recall hearing Yglesias or any other mainstream liberals calling for its abandonment. There is no contradiction in supporting capitalism for its practical and moral virtues while also believing that governmental policy should support additional goals that free enterprise itself can’t or won’t.

You don’t seem to realize how easy this sort of nonsense is to turn around. I could make the claim that the true desire of conservatives is not to reward hard work but to reward privilege, and I could easily back this up with the extensive evidence of the revealed preference of conservative policymaking. I don’t happen to think this is true, but man, would it be easy to make the case!

149 TallDave November 7, 2011 at 2:39 pm

In other words, he promotes policies that put fairness ahead of an “an ethos of initiative, hard work, and individual responsibility” because he believes fairness is more important than those things. All you’ve done is restate the point you claimed to be disagreeing with.

150 Marian Kechlibar November 6, 2011 at 11:28 am

Smaller differences are easier to understand, and, therefore, easier to produce a conflict.

Notice that many, if not most religious wars in world history were actually sectarian wars between relatively close branches of the same religion.

Even in contemporary Western world, the competition with Islam (with its familiar Abrahamic roots) is perceived more acutely than competition with an entirely alien (from Western POV) culture like China / Japan.

151 Rahul November 6, 2011 at 12:18 pm

The persistent and bloody Hindu-Muslim conflicts of the Indian sub-continent might offer an exception to this generalization.

152 Marian Kechlibar November 6, 2011 at 12:21 pm

Well, Islam has generally bloody borders, but this kind of speech may land you in front of a court in many countries of the EU.

Just recently, Austria passed a draconic law on this. Officially as a reaction to the Norwegian Breivik massacre.

153 Rahul November 6, 2011 at 12:28 pm

@Marian Kechlibar

Which law is this? Any details? I’m curious. Yes, in general EU does stifle free speech a lot more than the US.

154 Marian Kechlibar November 6, 2011 at 12:34 pm

It is the new anti-terrorism law and the relevant passage is about “incitement”

Anyone who makes contemptible or attempts to make contemptible a group … defined by … race, skin color, language, religion, philosophy, citizenship, ancestry, national or ethnic origin, gender, handicap, age, or sexual orientation … up to two years in prison.

The worst thing is that the Austrians did this to themselves, voluntarily. Their previous experience with this kind of oppression was, at least, brought by ye olde jackboot- and- panzer occupation by foreign power.

155 Svante November 6, 2011 at 11:17 am

Many good comments above. I think it’s also important to recognize that liberals implicitly draw a distinction between the value of hard work and the justice of hard work. Everyone understands the economic logic of the fact that a school teacher or a steelworker can work incredibly hard at a punishing job and end up with relatively little money, while a stock trader can work hard at a punishing job and end up fantastically wealthy. And while such a distribution of income might make perfect sense from an efficiency standpoint, it doesn’t follow in a straightforward sense that it also represents a just or moral outcome. (Conservative may disagree, and this is where I think a real difference lies.)

For the most part, Americans — liberal and conservative — are happy to live in a system that rewards hard work and also delivers a very unequal distribution of outcomes. But when the perception arises either that some people are simply cheating or that the disjunction between efficiency and justice is too stark, then, well, people get upset. It’s also true, as mentioned above, that liberals recognize that hard work is certainly no guarantee of a good outcome, and while few argue that such guarantees should be in place, most do feel that the principle of “there but for the grace of God” does argue for a strong safety net to cushion the worst of life’s vicissitudes.

Finally, it’s worth noting that conservatives often do operationally believe the same thing as liberals — with the important caveat that such compassion is more typically applied on an in-group basis. Matt Yglesias has written quite a bit, convincingly, about the tribal affiliations underlying many attitudes toward social welfare programs. And not to put to fine a point on it, liberals do sometimes smell something a bit fishy when conservatives valorize individual responsibility. I think this, more than hostility toward “an ethos of hard work” per se, accounts for some of the pushback. It’s pretty much nonsense to suggest that liberals don’t believe in an ethos of hard work. They don’t raise their own children that way, and it’s easy to point to various subcultural groups that are traditionally liberal and also place an extremely high value on hard work.

156 Max W November 6, 2011 at 4:51 pm

“A democracy cannot exist as a permanent form of government. It can only exist until the voters discover that they can vote themselves largesse from the public treasury. From that moment on, the majority always votes for the candidates promising the most benefits from the public treasury with the result that a democracy always collapses over loose fiscal policy, always followed by a dictatorship.”

your entire comment pretty much embodies the mentality mentioned in the quote. there is no excuse for taking the wealth of successful people and redistributing it the less successful. any claims of morality is just pitiful attempts at rationalizing away the fact that actual motivations are born of greed and envy. (the idea that teachers should be paid as high as traders is ridiculous. teachers are interchangeable not to mention abundant. there will always be people who fail to achieve a profession who then fall back on teaching. ex. someone who doesnt make it through med school decides to teach biology).

157 Donald Pretari November 6, 2011 at 11:20 am

“Many progressives are genuinely unaware of how unusual a moral code they often are communicating and celebrating, if only implicitly.”

I think that cuts both ways.

158 8 November 6, 2011 at 11:31 am

Conservatives believe initial conditions are more fixed than liberals. Equality is a fantasy. Even in eternity, some are condemned to Hell. Societies fixated on equality have a death toll second to none, from the French revolution to Mao.

The thumb of nature never comes off the scale. One way to overcome that thumb is to have someone else help; in the form of government, this takes away some of the dignity of the individual and ends up working against “an ethos of initiative, hard work, and individual responsibility” because there is no connection between the help and these values. Another way to help is through charity, in this case the people closest to those in need can assess who is truly in need and who only needs some initiative. I remember there was a big debate over whether Forrest Gump was a liberal or conservative movie. Conservatives saw it as a man pushing himself to the full extent of his capabilities, despite his initial conditions. Today, look to the inner cities where respect is the most important value. There is no dignity in a welfare system, but people need it.

Conservatives would not teach children that there is equality, nor would a conservative society value equality (except before the law). There is a choice, liberty or equality. The United States is exceptional because it is perhaps the only democratic nation based on a revolution that rejected equality, but the battle has raged ever since and one might even say the left has won and wrested history from the right.

159 Pat L November 6, 2011 at 11:51 am

Do any of these novels and films have business heroes?

George Bailey, It’s a Wonderful Life? Which, to be sure, also features a business villain, but George Bailey is about the most favorable depiction of a businessman ever set on film.

160 Rahul November 6, 2011 at 12:39 pm

Wonder where The Count of Monte Cristo falls on the left-right spectrum……..

161 Rahul November 6, 2011 at 12:16 pm

Are there any blogs or books by relatively unsuccessful people that extol the virtues of “initiative, hard work, and individual responsibility”?

162 CIP November 6, 2011 at 12:51 pm

The phrase “individual responsibility” is so laden with political and ideological baggage that no one should dare to use it in a literal, neutral fashion. Those who trumpet it usually mean rather to deny personal responsibility beyond their own narrowest personal interests.

163 Seem November 6, 2011 at 1:00 pm

I agree on ‘individual responsibility’ but why should libertarians believe in initiative and hard work? As long as I can fund it myself and accept the consequences, why can’t I sit on the sofa all day long getting high?

164 Max W November 6, 2011 at 4:33 pm

conservatives/libertarians understand the heirs of the wealthy are still contributing to society – by spending their parents’ money. but liberals will look at this as “unfair”, even though they are financially self-sufficient. i believe the abolition of inheritance is one of the planks of the Communist Manifesto for this very reason. the idea of passing on the fruits of your labor to your children is in-egalitarian, and therefore unacceptable.

165 Randall Parker November 6, 2011 at 6:04 pm

Conservatives and libertarians fear that anyone who doesn’t work hard will vote for redistribution. The least productive are far more likely to demand from the productive.

166 Seem November 7, 2011 at 2:54 am

Fair enough but placing expectations on what I should do with my liberty doesn’t feel in the spirit of celebrating individual freedom.

167 Bob November 6, 2011 at 1:10 pm

1) Hard work is overrated. Its all about the rewards. Let somebody else do the hard work. As long as I collect the check I’m happy and will praise his “hard work.”
2) Individual responsibility is another hollow, empty idea. I would rather get as much reward as possible and if I get into a bind I’ll try to pin the blame on somebody else. That makes me less responsible doesn’t it? Sorry, I’d rather be a cash cow than a sacrificial lamb.

To answer Tyler’s question, me. Privately I’m against hard work and individual responsibilities. Publicly, I’ll extol those virtues just to get what I want out of people.

168 Abelard Lindsey November 6, 2011 at 1:29 pm

Left ideology is based on the parasitism of the productive. Even Karl Marz himself admitted that capitalism was better at productivity and wealth-creation. Yet he promoted communism. Leftist ideology is not a legitimate ideology.

169 Pat L November 6, 2011 at 1:54 pm

I’m no fan of communism, but Marx opposed capitalism partly on the basis that it did not reward hard work appropriately. He wanted to align political power with workers (who work, obviously) and away from capitalists and rentiers (who receive income from sources not directly related to labor). One could argue that this is misguided, but it’s still an ethos that values hard work.

170 Max W November 6, 2011 at 4:26 pm

i think youre giving him way too much credit. Karl Marx foresaw the coming creative destruction of many jobs brought on by the Industrial Revolution, and channeled the people’s angst into a social movement.

171 Abelard Lindsey November 6, 2011 at 1:30 pm

I suppose I agree with Will Wilkinson about the importance of “an ethos of initiative, hard work, and individual responsibility” though I have no real idea why he thinks most progressives are against such an ethos.

Because progressives believe in parasitizing individuals who practice such an ethos.

172 Svante November 6, 2011 at 1:53 pm


173 Andrew' November 6, 2011 at 1:49 pm

Engineers are notoriously lazy. Hard work as signaling is just waste.

174 Rahul November 6, 2011 at 3:18 pm

Reminds me of a quote that said to be a good systems administrator the two biggest virtues are laziness and hubris…….

175 TallDave November 7, 2011 at 2:47 pm

You want the programmer who writes a repeat loop, not the programmer who just keeps typing the same command over and over.

176 BenK November 6, 2011 at 4:12 pm

Ugh. As usual, I find myself disgusted by the inability of a one dimensional ordination to describe the complete range of political and philosophical positions in a useful fashion.

177 stataTheLeft November 6, 2011 at 5:06 pm

I think you could find plenty of people on the Left criticizing folks who write us though poor people or black people have no agency. This seems to be an acknowledgment of the importance of individual responsibility, initiative etc. I’d look to the black nationalist left in particular to find examples.

I also think it’s strange to say that the left in general doesn’t care about individual responsibility given the the Left’s tendency to eat its own in arguments about personal ethics (who’s the greenest, most vegan, least oppressive, gives away the most money, etc.). Lots of Green movements have this tendency. Peter Singer is certainly on the Left and emphasizes individual responsibility. Also look at the valorization of Paul Farmer.

178 byomtov November 6, 2011 at 5:12 pm

Wilkinson writes:

the Occupy Wall Street movement, which is founded on something like the assumption that individuals are caught in a web of socio-economic forces upon which only the collective action of organized class interests have any influence.

I don’t think this is the point. It’s certainly not mine. My point, and I suspect a lot of the OWSers’ is precisely that the game seems to be rigged. That too much depends not at all on “an ethos of initiative, hard work, and individual responsibility,” but on other factors.

179 Patito November 6, 2011 at 6:34 pm

This seems like a pretty decent characterization of one of the tremendous differences between Conservatives and Liberals. Conservatives have an ideal citizen in mind (full of initiative, hard-working, personally responsible) and they believe we should develop citizens that reflect those ideals. Citizens with those traits will attain their own tools of empowerment (education, wealth, connections). In other words, Conservatives focus on molding what they believe are the best individuals.

Liberals, on the other hand, are really reluctant to pin down an idea of the ‘best citizen’ because… you know… things change. It isn’t that a Liberal thinks that initiative, hard work and personal responsibility are BAD, it’s just they are reluctant to champion some traits as the most important because what if they turn out to be wrong? And for good reason: along with those three great traits, many Conservatives champion things like nuclear families and religious beliefs. This freezing of the ‘best citizen’ makes liberals uncomfortable. Liberals are always concerned with what might be just around the corner in terms of moral progress. This leaves them unable to decide on the ideal individual, and they are left with focusing on the tools of empowered citizens instead. So, in the face of uncertainty about the ideal citizen, a liberal hopes to provide equitable access to the tools that an empower citizens (wealth, education and connections).

This critique of Liberals seems obviously true. It probably shouldn’t be denied. Liberals should just admit that pinning down today’s ideal makes them uncomfortable. Liberals should just admit they believe everyone should individually decide the importance of moral values. Given that liberals don’t want to prescribe the ideal citizen, but still want empowered citizens, they tend to argue for equitable access to wealth, education and connections (the tools of empowered citizens, that conservatives believe follow from being the ideal).

180 Randall Parker November 6, 2011 at 7:50 pm

If opportunity in America were really so unequal then this adoption study (with more here also from Alex) should have produced a very different result. Also see this later discussion.

When outcomes are unequal one has to figure out whether nature or nurture or something else is at work.

181 John Personna November 6, 2011 at 8:48 pm

I disagree with the idea that “what do you talk about today” is the same as “what is your complete moral philosophy.” Progressives may think they are the voice of the oppressed, as a role. It isn’t a contradiction that they do that while encouraging their kids to get good grades.

182 byomtov November 6, 2011 at 9:00 pm

Look at fiction, such as famous left-wing or progressive novels, or for that matter famous left-wing and progressive movies. How many of them celebrate “an ethos of initiative, hard work, and individual responsibility”?

This makes no sense whatsoever. If you define a movie or novel that celebrates “an ethos of initiative, hard work, and individual responsibility” as a conservative or libertarian work, then of course you won’t find left-wing or progressive works that celebrate that. Your claim requires a definition of “left-wing or progressive” works that doesn’t depend on the values they celebrate. You haven’t provided that.

183 Chris November 7, 2011 at 1:07 am

The virtue of selfishness is hard to tease out of history as people have been selfish from the get go. If you want to know why, say, the West has done well I suggest looking at values and institutions.

184 Dean Sayers November 7, 2011 at 5:31 pm

The left has always valued labor above the possession of wealth. That is a pretty obvious form of reverence for initiative, hard work, individual responsibility, etc. etc.

This seems like an obvious example; why isn’t it mentioned in the OP? Perhaps the left has been shamed into rejecting the value of labor by a reverence for capital possessions above applied labor.

But the difference seems like nothing more than a reflection of the Left/Right paradigm in an intensely capitalist nation. The Democrats like to act like they care about the poor and give them handouts, and the Republicans like to act like they care more for the person who worked hard for what they have (and still have it!). The consequence of course is a bipartisan contempt for the downtrodden, including those who work hard in the context of a market that devalues their labor and inflates their cost of living. The hard working individual is screwed here – but the Dems want charity, the Repubs want austerity and nobody is arguing that the working class was set up to fail all along.

But the deficit of reverence for individual responsibility on both sides is imminently clear.

185 Chet November 7, 2011 at 8:29 pm

Maybe as part of a broader struggle against a corrupt system or against “The Man,” but that tripartite of values is not celebrated in its own right

I’m utterly unconvinced that conservatives/libertarians don’t celebrate those values in exactly this way, as well. All the big conservative works about individual struggle and innovative, hard work are also in the context of a struggle against a corrupt system, too. “Atlas Shrugged” isn’t about a metals engineer working hard to overcome challenges in metallurgy, it’s about an engineer working to overcome a corrupt, redistributive system.

You simply take it for granted that conservatives/libertarians celebrate individual initiative for its own sake, but eve a cursory glance at their seminal novels and films reveals that they celebrate it only against a backdrop of “moochers.”

186 Scott Galupo November 7, 2011 at 10:30 pm

Some of the Italian neorealist films—”The Bicycle Thief,” “Shoeshine,” etc.—fit the bill, I would think. Hard-working individuals, trying to pull themselves up by the bootstraps and all that. The characters don’t necessarily succeed, mind you; that’s what makes, generally speaking, “progressive” films. But the “ethos of individual responsibility” is certainly there…

187 Abersouth November 8, 2011 at 12:01 am

How is it no one brought up the movie “Office Space”?!! This movie perfectly plays with the ideas of hard work vs. slacking and which is a wiser course in a messed up environment.

I likely have too much time on my hands, but how has no one also mentioned “The Crowd” by King Vidor? It is straight up about a guy who works his butt off but doesn’t make his American dream.

I’m not sure if I would classify either of those movies as liberal or conservative or libertarian leaning. I think each is subversive to the idea of success. And each has been widely popular in its day.

188 Erik M. November 8, 2011 at 12:36 am

“How often will a progressive stress that the poor should develop greater conscientiousness rather than looking to government support?”

Think of who could say “the poor should…”; it’s not a voice from on high.

A libertarian who says “people poorer than me should solve their own problems!” is advocating responsibility while evading it.
A progressive who says “I don’t deserve to have as much as I do, and would like to help create a society where no one is poor” is, it seems to me, trying to take responsibility for our common problems and not merely urge someone else to do so.

No doubt many of us have problems of our own making, but if I say that everyone below me in the economic hierarchy is less conscientious than I am, it’s nothing more than a comforting fiction.

189 walnuts November 8, 2011 at 3:03 am

Everyone respects “an ethos of initiative, hard work, and individual responsibility”. Heroes use these traits to succeed in every movie. The reason nobody makes movies about go-getters who bust their asses over a lifetime to accumulate a huge fortune is because that feat, in itself, is respectable but not interesting. Progressives say “I suppose” because the term “an ethos of initiative, hard work, and individual responsibility” is what they’re accustomed to hearing when someone is praising the accomplishments of tycoons.

190 Console November 8, 2011 at 5:44 am

If I really had to make a conservative/liberal split on this, it really comes down to this:

Liberals don’t think people are that different so extreme sorting doesn’t make sense and thus must occur due to outside conditions.

Conservatives believe in hierarchy. A stratified society exists naturally in the conservative mind so the only thing they do is try to come up with explanations for why this is. It usually always comes down to morality though. Back in the old world, you had a Lord because God made him the Lord and you the serf. Now it’s more along the lines of seeing the successful as virtuous and the poor as not being conscientious enough.

Libertarians can fit in with either/or because liberalism and conservatism aren’t really political positions. They’re temperaments. Hell, you can be a leftist and still have a conservative temperament.

191 Chris November 8, 2011 at 6:19 am

Bull Durham is such a movie. Tim Robbins has a million dollar arm but it is Kevin Costnar, the journeyman AAA hard-working catcher who is the character you like. Hard work and dedication gave him a career in baseball.

192 Angry Sam November 8, 2011 at 9:20 am

How about The Grapes of Wrath?

193 Tyro November 9, 2011 at 1:10 am

I don’t read much fiction, but Liberals valorize and ethos of hard work, as long as no/little monetary compensation comes of it. Liberal heroes in fiction and discussions among friends in liberal social circles involve the tireless hero/friend who works constantly for very little reward (like for non profit or public interest forum or as a hard working teacher). Or the alternate liberal hero is the poor person who works hard at his two low paying jobs, as an example of how the poor deserve better. (liberals are always praising the values of laborers). “All the President’s Men” would be a good example here. So would “The Deer Hunter,” where the heroes are factory workers.

This isn’t about conservative counterparts to these archetypes, so I will leave that aside for now.

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