YOU ARE HERE: LAT HomeCollections

The Nation : Confronting the Matter of Personal Responsibility

July 10, 1994|James A. Baker III | James A. Baker III was the 61st secretary of state

WASHINGTON — America's elites have decided that personal responsibility's time has come. Major print and electronic media feature virtue as the subject of cover articles and lead stories. In the political arena, Democrats from the President on down, long reluctant to embrace an issue more often associated with Republicans, can hardly step to a podium without invoking values.

This public focus is welcome, as well as overdue. But, in truth, personal responsibility's time never went.

The vast majority of Americans of all faiths, races and political persuasions try today, just as they always have, to live according to standards of behavior as old as civilization. They obey the law, work hard, respect their neighbors and raise their children to do the same. For five years or more, almost unnoticed by the media, local communities have been working to return character to our schools and streets.

The reason is simple: According to a recent poll, 73% of Americans worry that the nation is experiencing a moral decline. They are right to be concerned.

The symptoms of America's social decay hardly bear repeating. The explosive rise of illegitimacy since 1960 has plunged millions into material poverty and moral dependence. An epidemic of crime has created a climate of fear in many neighborhoods and schools. Much of our popular culture is dominated by promiscuity, violence--or both. Worse yet, our judicial and education systems often seem helpless to stem the rising tide of social decay.

The manifestations of America's crisis in values may be complex. But its cause is clear. It embodies the idea that somebody else is responsible for our actions and reflects a rejection of personal responsibility.

The price of this denial of personal responsibility is staggering. By some estimates, crime alone costs the American economy more than $600 billion a year. Substance abuse and illegitimacy add countless billions more. But the human cost paid in death, ruined lives and dashed hopes is far higher. And it falls, in cruel disproportion, on our most vulnerable.

It would be folly, however, to identify today's crisis in values solely with America's most disadvantaged, the "underclass." Whatever the outcome of the O.J. Simpson case--and it is important to recall his presumption of innocence under law--Nicole Brown Simpson's history of abuse at her husband's hands reminds us that domestic violence crosses economic lines. Denial of responsibility has tainted all levels of American society, especially its young. Teen-age drug and alcohol abuse are major problems in the poshest of suburbs. Sexual promiscuity is not limited to the inner city--nor is the disease and illegitimacy that go with it.

America's crisis in values is so pervasive that no single approach can address it. Public policy can and indeed must play a part. But so, too, must community action and individual engagement.

At the government level, statehouses are leading the way. Legislatures across the nation have passed measures--including mandatory sentencing and "three strikes, you're out" provisions for repeat violent offenders--that will help put the onus of crime where it belongs: on the criminal. Republican governors in Massachusetts, Wisconsin and New Jersey are pushing innovative welfare reforms designed to return responsibility to the system through strict work requirements.

Typically, Washington's record is more mixed. A tough crime bill has still not received congressional approval, because of efforts by liberal House Democrats to scuttle it. The President's much-touted plan to "end welfare as we know it" is short on both details and teeth--it won't even apply to two-thirds of the 5 million American families now on welfare. The Administration's health-care plan--with employer mandates, price controls and a huge bureaucracy--marks a step away from personal responsibility and toward the "government knows best" philosophy that landed America in so much trouble in the first place.

But communities are not waiting for Washington. Groups like the Character Counts Coalition, representing 27 organizations and led by actor Tom Selleck and former Rep. Barbara Jordan, are working to put personal responsibility back where it belongs: at the top of the nation's youth agenda. School boards are considering ways to strengthen curricula, with a new emphasis on old virtues like trustworthiness, respect and citizenship.

These local efforts don't begin and end in the classroom. The idea of community service for young people--of giving to, as well as taking from, society--is being put into practice around the country. So, too, are innovative programs aimed at preventing teen-age pregnancy through responsible behavior, before it produces more fatherless families and poverty.

Still, more than legislation and community action will be needed if the slide in American morals and morale is to be stopped--much less reversed. Here, the individual as role model remains key.

Los Angeles Times Articles