Thrawn Rickle 17

Responsibility, Accountability, and Culpability

© 1993 Williscroft

An underlying American principle is supremacy of the individual. Yet from the beginning, this has been honored more in breach than in fact.

Our founding fathers seemed to say that control of everything rests with the individual except where it is clearly impossible for the individual to exercise such control. Then it reverts to government, but always to that government closest to the problem—local and regional government first, then state, and finally national, and then only for matters that go beyond the interests of individual states.

Diverging interpretations of this concept clashed almost immediately. One group insisted on reserving to the individual or to the lowest possible government unit anything not specifically reserved by the constitution to a higher unit. The opposition was less concerned with what was possible, focusing instead on what was most reasonable or most advantageous. And therein lay the seeds of a problem that still affects us today.

Who defines “reasonable” or “advantageous”? The Washington state legislature recently enacted a motorcycle helmet law. Clearly, the majority believed that it was “advantageous” for bikers to be helmeted. They invoked statistics about lower injury rates for helmet wearers. They calculated higher costs to society for supplying care to injured helmetless bikers without adequate insurance. Counter arguments about an individual’s right to make responsible choices (or not), about usurping rights not specifically granted to government, fell on deaf ears. Arguments for enforcing specific financial requirements on bikers went unheeded.

Mandatory seat belt laws are another example of the same kind of thinking. Government assumes a responsibility not specifically granted to it, thereby removing from the individual the responsibility for making another self-preserving rational decision.

Proponents of these things miss the point when they argue that they are saving lives. Our constitution is not about saving lives, it’s about freedom.

Prove that my driving 55 mph makes you safer on the highway, and you have my attention. Prove that it makes me safer and base a speed limit on this, and you’ve taken from me a choice I should be making. Hold me legally accountable for the consequences of my reckless driving and enforce this—you’ll keep my attention. Fine me when you catch me speeding, and I’ll buy a radar detector.

We are losing sight of a fundamental principle. In a society of free individuals, we each must act in our own rational self interest. We each are fully accountable for our actions. Society must enforce this fact, must ensure that each individual never escapes the consequences of irresponsible behavior.

It isn’t a question of whether or not a result is beneficial. It is not even a question of right or wrong. It is a question of responsibility, accountability, and culpability.