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The Age of Responsibility: Luck, Choice, and the Welfare State

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A novel focus on "personal responsibility" has transformed political thought and public policy in America and Europe. Since the 1970s, responsibility--which once meant the moral duty to help and support others--has come to suggest an obligation to be self-sufficient. This narrow conception of responsibility has guided recent reforms of the welfare state, making key entitle A novel focus on "personal responsibility" has transformed political thought and public policy in America and Europe. Since the 1970s, responsibility--which once meant the moral duty to help and support others--has come to suggest an obligation to be self-sufficient. This narrow conception of responsibility has guided recent reforms of the welfare state, making key entitlements conditional on good behavior. Drawing on intellectual history, political theory, and moral philosophy, Yascha Mounk shows why the Age of Responsibility is pernicious--and how it might be overcome. Personal responsibility began as a conservative catchphrase. But over time, leaders across the political spectrum came to subscribe to its underlying framework. Today, even egalitarian philosophers rarely question the normative importance of responsibility. Emphasizing the pervasive influence of luck over our lives, they cast the poor as victims who cannot be held responsible for their actions. Mounk shows that today's focus on individual culpability is both wrong and counterproductive: it distracts us from the larger economic forces determining aggregate outcomes, ignores what we owe our fellow citizens regardless of their choices, and blinds us to other key values, such as the desire to live in a society of equals. Recognizing that even society's neediest members seek to exercise genuine agency, Mounk builds a positive conception of responsibility. Instead of punishing individuals for their past choices, he argues, public policy should aim to empower them to take responsibility for themselves--and those around them.


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A novel focus on "personal responsibility" has transformed political thought and public policy in America and Europe. Since the 1970s, responsibility--which once meant the moral duty to help and support others--has come to suggest an obligation to be self-sufficient. This narrow conception of responsibility has guided recent reforms of the welfare state, making key entitle A novel focus on "personal responsibility" has transformed political thought and public policy in America and Europe. Since the 1970s, responsibility--which once meant the moral duty to help and support others--has come to suggest an obligation to be self-sufficient. This narrow conception of responsibility has guided recent reforms of the welfare state, making key entitlements conditional on good behavior. Drawing on intellectual history, political theory, and moral philosophy, Yascha Mounk shows why the Age of Responsibility is pernicious--and how it might be overcome. Personal responsibility began as a conservative catchphrase. But over time, leaders across the political spectrum came to subscribe to its underlying framework. Today, even egalitarian philosophers rarely question the normative importance of responsibility. Emphasizing the pervasive influence of luck over our lives, they cast the poor as victims who cannot be held responsible for their actions. Mounk shows that today's focus on individual culpability is both wrong and counterproductive: it distracts us from the larger economic forces determining aggregate outcomes, ignores what we owe our fellow citizens regardless of their choices, and blinds us to other key values, such as the desire to live in a society of equals. Recognizing that even society's neediest members seek to exercise genuine agency, Mounk builds a positive conception of responsibility. Instead of punishing individuals for their past choices, he argues, public policy should aim to empower them to take responsibility for themselves--and those around them.

30 review for The Age of Responsibility: Luck, Choice, and the Welfare State

  1. 5 out of 5

    Vipassana

    The age of responsibility, as Yascha Mounk calls it, places emphasis on the moral status of an individuals, as opposed to the needs of a community; and on the past action of particular agents as opposed to their ability to contribute in the future. However, the point of institutions is not reward good behaviour and punish bad bahviour, but to serve a whole set of values and sustain those values over time. Deciding what those values are, depends on what we see the purpose of institutions to be, a The age of responsibility, as Yascha Mounk calls it, places emphasis on the moral status of an individuals, as opposed to the needs of a community; and on the past action of particular agents as opposed to their ability to contribute in the future. However, the point of institutions is not reward good behaviour and punish bad bahviour, but to serve a whole set of values and sustain those values over time. Deciding what those values are, depends on what we see the purpose of institutions to be, and those values dictate how the welfare state functions. The central theme is that people across the political spectrum have a punitive notion of personal responsibility and we need a positive conception of it. He claims that both the left and right believe that welfare recipients should be denied welfare if it can be established that the recipient's actions has lead to his/her impoverished state, it's just that the right has a very low threshold to establish a causal relationship whereas the left has a very high threshold. A key issue with the welfare system is that it doesn't treat the recipient as someone with agency but rather a hopeless being who may be subjected to a humiliating process in order to receive welfare. Mounk claims that the time limits on welfare assistance (imposed by the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act) don't help either. Punitive conditions on the receipt of welfare don't provide the welfare recipient with agency. This kind of conditionality keeps the people who need welfare the most out of the system. A positive notion of responsibility is one that should allow an individual to have some control on the outcome of his/her efforts. An example of this is a field experiment at a JobCenter in Essex where job seekers were asked to make specific commitments for the future rather than prove that the had been making efforts to seek a job in the past. The number of job seekers going into paid employment rose significantly. The path to understanding the positive conception of responsibility starts with a chapter dedicated to a philosophical examination of attributing responsibility for an outcome to an agent. He asks whether there has to be a causal link between action and outcome in order for the agent to be held responsible in an institutional sense. His answer is no. However, he doesn't believe that it is necessary to impose conditions on welfare unless help recipients progress. It made me think that the ascription of responsibility should be done by the agent, in this case the welfare recipient. To understand why this is important, apart from being a decent way to treat a person, Yascha Mounk makes the case that humans need to feel like they have agency in order to feel fulfilled, and while many arenas of public life allow a person to feel that was, the welfare system does not. The examination of luck, choice and institutional values made me examine to point behind the work that I do, the pointlessness behind some other things and not be bothered by the lack of concrete answers to either issue. I'm sure Mounk did not set out to write a self-help book but for me it was one. However, he concludes the chapter by saying that we should thus give up the idea that we could ever integrate a philosophically subtle notion of reponsibility into political practice. He argues that ascribing responsibility in public policy should be about upholding the values that institutions stand for. What those values are is up for discussion but Mounk believes that the establishment of an equal world is one of them. As an example of how the punitive conception of personal responsibility affects activism, there is a brave and necessary exploration of gay rights and the language surrounding the movement that I had longed to hear. Yascha Mounk doesn’t attempt to find any root causes to queer-ness but attacks the premise that queer-ness has to be an inherent 'born this way' aspect of a person to be legitimate. How does that matter? Irrespective of why people are queer, they are and have right to life and community the way any straight-cis person would. I've always found the 'born this way’ language quite patronizing and Mounk made it so much clearer in my head as to why. The operating principle of this book is taken from Quentin Skinner's Liberty Before Liberalism and states that it is easy to become bewitched into thinking that the way of thinking about [the concepts] bequeathed to us by the mainstream intellectual tradition must be the way of thinking about them and Yascha Mounk masterfully excavates the ossified intellectual reasoning behind welfare policy and to some extent policy making more broadly.

  2. 4 out of 5

    Steve

    Excellent book, well-written and thought provoking. Complex topics but very readable. I'd love to read his thoughts about crime and the justice system; he mentioned these issues a little bit but I think he didn't want to get side-tracked away from welfare-type issues. (And hurrah for 200 page books!) But the questions of responsibility and deservedness seem very similar. I thought the one shortcoming of the book is that it seemed to be only looking at the relationship between the state and welfa Excellent book, well-written and thought provoking. Complex topics but very readable. I'd love to read his thoughts about crime and the justice system; he mentioned these issues a little bit but I think he didn't want to get side-tracked away from welfare-type issues. (And hurrah for 200 page books!) But the questions of responsibility and deservedness seem very similar. I thought the one shortcoming of the book is that it seemed to be only looking at the relationship between the state and welfare recipients, and I think it may not have paid adequate attention to citizens who are (mostly, usually) not welfare recipients. Their perspective is important also - if they feel used and ignored (by both the state and the recipients) they turn into a nasty political force that isn't good for anyone...

  3. 4 out of 5

    Alexis

    We live in the age of responsibility. But, Yascha Mounk argues, we have progressively narrowed our view of what responsibility means in the political sphere. It has been reduced solely to personal responsibility for outcomes in one's own life, and we have come to believe in the notion that benefits should be conditional on that responsibility. The left has responded by denying that individuals are responsible--focusing on structural flaws. While there is truth in their arguments, it ultimately b We live in the age of responsibility. But, Yascha Mounk argues, we have progressively narrowed our view of what responsibility means in the political sphere. It has been reduced solely to personal responsibility for outcomes in one's own life, and we have come to believe in the notion that benefits should be conditional on that responsibility. The left has responded by denying that individuals are responsible--focusing on structural flaws. While there is truth in their arguments, it ultimately buys in to the responsibility framework. Rather than attacking conditionality itself, it says that it doesn't apply. Since people don't like the perceived message that they lack personal agency, the argument can turn off those it's meant to excuse. Mounk argues that instead, we need to reconceive the notion of responsibility in a positive form. This is not an easy book to read--it was Mounk's dissertation, and it shows. Familiarity with the basics of philosophy and political philosophy are mandatory, and although it's a short book, it's not an easy read. Nonetheless, the ideas are fascinating and potentially an important contribution to political debate. We spend all our time arguing about individual responsibility for outcomes, and none about our responsibility towards others and the responsibility of our institutions towards others. The last chapter is in some ways the weakest, because Mounk tries too hard to keep it apolitical and the examples are nonspecific.

  4. 5 out of 5

    Andrew Carter

    Am not learned in this subject and had some difficulty reading this book; however, there was much to appreciate in the presentation of ideas. It seems to me that much of the focus on the welfare situation addressed either personal choices gone bad or the environment in which the recipient resides and the difficulty of reaching a clear focus in dispersing welfare. I like the more positive or supportive approach...one that views the effort being extended by the potential recipient to achieve some Am not learned in this subject and had some difficulty reading this book; however, there was much to appreciate in the presentation of ideas. It seems to me that much of the focus on the welfare situation addressed either personal choices gone bad or the environment in which the recipient resides and the difficulty of reaching a clear focus in dispersing welfare. I like the more positive or supportive approach...one that views the effort being extended by the potential recipient to achieve some level of recognition or self sufficiency. Is someone really trying to be more self sufficient and what can others do to facilitate the outcome.

  5. 4 out of 5

    Derkaisermike

    Excellent! Mounk does a fantastic job of carefully pulling apart the threads to examine the shift of understanding of responsibility in the western world over the past few decades, following a change of predominantly responsibility as duty to responsibility as accountability, and the implications to the welfare/workfare state and systems. Laying out a detailed argument against the punitive nature of current views on responsibility and accountability, he makes the case for a more positive respons Excellent! Mounk does a fantastic job of carefully pulling apart the threads to examine the shift of understanding of responsibility in the western world over the past few decades, following a change of predominantly responsibility as duty to responsibility as accountability, and the implications to the welfare/workfare state and systems. Laying out a detailed argument against the punitive nature of current views on responsibility and accountability, he makes the case for a more positive responsibility/accountability to replace it. Well worth the read!

  6. 5 out of 5

    Eli Weinstein

    Extraordinarily clear and well reasoned, concise arguments that all fit together beautifully. Integrates public policy, cultural criticism, history, and many areas of modern philosophy and political theory.

  7. 4 out of 5

    Uptownbookwormnyc

    preaching to the choir

  8. 4 out of 5

    Anne

  9. 4 out of 5

    Jonah Hahn

  10. 5 out of 5

    Richie Chevat

  11. 4 out of 5

    Richard Peebly

  12. 5 out of 5

    Ryan

  13. 4 out of 5

    Mumei

  14. 4 out of 5

    Laura

  15. 5 out of 5

    Martin Lund

  16. 5 out of 5

    Lynn Schlatter

  17. 4 out of 5

    Josh Yuter

  18. 5 out of 5

    Kelly

  19. 5 out of 5

    Jeff Schauer

  20. 5 out of 5

    Kelsey

  21. 4 out of 5

    Ian Greener

  22. 5 out of 5

    Matthew Chua

  23. 5 out of 5

    Evan

  24. 5 out of 5

    Sean

  25. 4 out of 5

    David Eastman

  26. 5 out of 5

    Hans Rodenburg

  27. 5 out of 5

    Dakota

  28. 5 out of 5

    Toine

  29. 4 out of 5

    Jim

  30. 4 out of 5

    Dan Curll

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