A Note From the Founder: The critical idea Joel ponders today is near and dear to us. Even if you’ve been reading the Digest for only a short time, you surely recognize that our Triad is built on the idea of personal responsibility. We can’t expect or rely on anyone else (even – gasp! – the government) to take care of us, especially when it comes to our knowledge, our money and our health. Stay tuned… We’ll touch on each of these key topics this week, and highlight an ingenious way to greatly enhance your wealth.
Do we want responsible citizens? When people accept and exercise responsibility, is that a good thing? Do you want responsible children?
Surely no one would answer, “No, I don’t want people to take responsibility for anything. I like dependency, and so should you.”
Can you imagine someone responding that way?
Questions like these can create fascinating interchanges across political spectrums because they seek to join us in common aspirations. Who doesn’t want responsible kids… responsible neighbors?
One of the most profound techniques in argumentation is to get to a place common enough, or shared enough, that even the opposition has to nod in agreement.
That’s the starting point for exploring an idea. If you can’t get to a point of agreement, you’ll never be able to explore an idea further. And oftentimes the starting point must be fairly basic, like asking whether a responsible person is better than an irresponsible person.
Once we have agreement on this, the next obvious question is, “How do we encourage responsibility?”
At this point, I like to stop talking. One of the big problems in argumentation is not pausing long enough for the other side to contemplate the question. The Socratic method works because it’s nonthreatening and exploratory.
My own farmers market experience bolsters this point.
Socrates at the Market
At our local farmers market, about six of us were selling eggs. As I looked at the other vendors, I wondered how to set myself apart.
To make matters worse, the other five vendors were selling their eggs at about half the price I was charging for mine.
If I were going to make a sale at all, I needed to come up with something dramatic.
I went down to Kroger and bought a dozen regular commercial eggs. Placing two small, white plates next to each other, I cracked a commercial egg into one and then cracked one of our pastured eggs into the other.
The striking difference between the two is common knowledge among those of us who enjoy a flock of backyard chickens. The pale commercial egg spread out on the plate; our vibrant yellow, almost orange, yolk perched atop a tight, high albumen. Wow, what a difference.
The first lady who came by, with 5-year-old in tow, looked at the two eggs and asked, “What are you trying to show?”
In typical professorial fashion, I began telling her about omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids, carotenes, and polyunsaturated fat.
Before I could get 20 seconds into my scientific explanation, the 5-year-old tugged at his mother’s sleeve and said, “Mommy, this guy is boring. Can we go now?”
Not one to let a 5-year-old’s admonition go unheeded, I decided to try a different tactic… the Socratic method.
The next lady who came along asked the same question as the first, but instead of explaining anything, I asked her, “What do you see?”
She responded, “This one is pale, and the other has more vibrant color.”
Me: “What’s the first thing you notice when your child isn’t feeling well?”
Customer: “Her cheeks are pale and lack color. Oh my, that egg is sick.”
Me: “Bingo. What else do you notice?”
Customer: “Well, this one is kind of spread out, and the other one is tight and standing way up tall.”
Me: “Are you familiar with muscle tone?”
Customer: “Of course. Wow, this one has a tight look. [Gentlemen, be careful heading down this path with moms. It can go sideways in a hurry.] It looks like it’s been to the CrossFit gym.”
Me: “You’ve got it.”
Customer: “I’ll take two dozen. Wow, these are really good eggs.”
I didn’t do anything but ask questions. She made the discovery herself. Rather than being lectured, she explored and found the answer. Now she owns the discovery. That’s a big deal and why the Socratic method of asking questions is still a good model.
Freedom of Responsibility
Now back to responsibility and the question at hand: How do we encourage responsibility?
Letting someone wrestle with this is good. Shut up and let them wrestle. Usually even a liberal progressive will finally say something like, “By giving them authority or letting them live with the consequences of their actions.”
If they have trouble getting there quickly, prompt them with some intermediary questions.
Using children works well… “How do you get your child to become responsible? By doing everything for him, or letting him do some things for himself?”
Again, most folks will be on the same page that autonomy and freedom facilitate responsible behavior.
You get the drift.
Once you establish an agreed-upon template for children, you can use it for adults. The ability to make decisions – and suffer the consequences of wrong ones and enjoy the benefits of the right ones – is the foundation for creating responsible behavior.
Call it decisional discernment. I like to call it exercising discernment muscles.
Without decisions and consequences, we have poor judgment and irresponsible behavior. Freedom to make decisions, then, is how we move toward responsibility.
If someone else makes all our decisions and we don’t have to worry about suffering the consequences, we move toward irresponsible conduct and decision making.
That’s why limited government is critical to a responsible citizenry. The more decisions the government makes and the more mandated safety nets for bad decisions, the more irresponsible the citizenry becomes.
To many of us, this is obvious enough to be almost silly to discuss. But for a major portion of our citizenry, reestablishing this level of common sense takes effort and lots of spirited discussion… and Socratic questions.
The fewer safety nets and interventionist regulations the government offers, the more responsibility citizens must exercise to protect themselves, personally, from bad decisions.
This is why government help and oversight, those sincere and lofty ambitions of socialist thinkers, consistently yield more dependency and irresponsibility in a culture.
Want a responsible citizenry? Give us freedom.
Note: And give us your thoughts on how to create more personal responsibility at firstname.lastname@example.org.