Privates, Publics and Politics

With which sentiment do you agree more?

1. I’m pretty much responsible for my own happiness

2. People are pretty much responsible for their own happiness.

There is a distinction, and it explains something about the gut level differences between those labels we love to toss around—liberal and conservative; even Democrat and Republican. It’s about private truths and public policy.

Suppose you’re speaking with a female acquaintance, and the dialogue goes like this.

Woman: It was just horrible. The way he broke up with me…then the divorce…that bastard tried everything…my life is a living hell…I can’t sleep…gained/lost weight…medication…he’s ruined my life…I don’t know if I can ever recover…

You: That’s awful. How long has it been since the divorce?

Woman: Eight years now.

Many of us would agree, that woman needs to get a life. She is the owner of her own oppression. Someone, hopefully a good friend, needs to tell her to get off the pity pot and take some responsibility for her own life.

Now—how many would say, “I don’t want to spend a nickel of public money, company money, insurance money, or any kind of money to allow people to get counselling for things like getting over divorce. Or PTSD, or ADD, or XYZ, or any kind of emotional distress. We have too much coddling. Those are private matters. People need to get off the pity pot and take responsibility for their own lives, otherwise they end up dependent on public handouts.”

The first message is about personal responsibility. It’s something that liberals and conservatives, Democrats and Republicans alike, can probably agree with. It’s a message delivered well by groups as diverse as AA, Bill Cosby, Landmark Forum, rational cognitive therapy and the Republican Party.

But the second message? Drop off everyone but the Republicans.

What’s the difference? Private truths vs. public policy.

Now for some really big generalizations.

The conservative/Republican grouping of people tend to lead with observations about individuals—private ethics, personal responsibilty, religious beliefs, freedom. They then approach public policy as an extension of those personal belief systems.

Which is you how get absurdities like Terry Schiavo—the massive interference by government into personal affairs by those who claim to be against governmental interference into personal affairs. Which Democrats then gleefully exploit as a contradiction.

And rightly so.

But the Democrats have their own logic issues. They tend to start with social observations—how people should get along, respect each other, watch out for each other and create Great Societies. They then subject personal interactions to the application of their social beliefs.
Which is how you get absurdities like political correctness, campaigns to make the “N” word illegal, and rent control. Which Republicans then gleefully exploit as a contradiction.

And rightly so.

The conservatives are right about individual responsibility—with respect to ourselves. And the liberals are right about collective responsibility—with respect to others. We need a new ethic that combines responsibility and generosity. And we need a new politics to go along with it.

It shouldn’t be that hard. Any culture that entertains concepts like charity, hospitality or civility makes a distinction between what we take on for ourselves, vs. how we treat others. In our rush to create a society that is both universal and ethical, we risk ending up with one that is fractionated and amoral.