It’s Not (Automatically) My Problem

by Mark Thayer on April 9, 2018

A question you will never hear posed by a journalist with respect to any social issue: “Whose problem is it, anyway?”

There was never much of a need to ask the question for most of our history. Before World War II, roughly, problems were solved by the individual as he saw fit and did not negatively affect his neighbor. If more than one person were involved, efforts toward a solution might originate in self-organizing groups — within a neighborhood, perhaps — or private, local institutions — churches or fraternal organizations. Government involvement, if any, was limited to the lowest possible level.

That this has changed with advances in communication technology is obvious, but it is worth noting the consequences. With the advent of a 24-hour news cycle and the pervasiveness of social media, we have imposed upon ourselves an assumption that every problem is a global problem, and requires a global solution. Since I, as an individual, cannot reasonably create a global solution to any problem, no matter how minor, it follows that government must be the primary mover. The possibility that responsibility might lie elsewhere than with large governmental institutions is never considered.

We have reached the point where our default behavior goes like this: there is a problem (generally with someone else), or there is something I want or need and don’t have; therefore, government is responsible and should fix it.

The consequences of this default assumption are ignored. “The personal is the political” was first confined to issues of feminism; the idea has grown to where any problem is everyone’s problem is government’s responsibility to fix it, make it better, or make it go away.

So what? If government can solve a problem, why not let it? This attitude appeals to our inherent laziness. We have come to see government less as a protector of individual freedom and liberty and more as a provider of services. One less thing for me to worry about; even less of a concern if the issue in question, and the proposed solution, have no or only a minimal effect on me. Neither the problem, nor the solution, are my problem.

The combination of “the personal is the political,” a technology infrastructure that allows for immediate and constant communication on any issue, and government “mission creep” creates an environment with significant negative consequences. The intrusion of the political process into the affairs of private life are a direct threat to our freedom — to be free from government constraint in the conduct of our personal lives. This is obvious, but ignored. The constant and pervasive communication of every problem, real or imagined, by the news media and special interest groups creates an atmosphere of guilt — if you don’t agree that this is a problem, you are part of the problem; more importantly, our solution is the only acceptable one and debate is absolutely not encouraged. Mission creep puts decisions about our private lives in the hands of those whose only qualification is that they won a popularity contest.

Worse, it creates a condition of learned helplessness. If every problem is critical, urgent, and global, I’m not likely to believe that I can solve it myself, even on a very local or personal level. I slowly come to believe that I am, if not quite powerless, then not fully competent to deal with the challenges of daily life. I have been cowed into a certain degree of submission. Not exactly an image of the dignity of the individual.

The solution is simple to the point of being lost in the noise: ask the question.

“Whose problem is it, anyway?”

In a free society, the default assumption is that most problems are the responsibility of the individual. This preserves our freedom from coercion at the hands of other individuals or government, and protects our liberty to act in whatever manner we think will improve our lives (subject to the moral obligation to do no harm to others). Government’s only tool is physical force, which is incompatible with preserving either freedom or liberty. In a free society, the burden of proof lies with government to make a compelling case as to why it should take this authority away from the individual.

Ask the question — and we should get comfortable with the idea that a legitimate answer is “not mine.” It is not the responsibility of the individual citizen to solve everyone else’s problems, and it is infantile of any person or group to expect that the solution to his, her, or their problem is the responsibility of someone else.

Ask the question — and recognize that responsibility may lie on a continuum with the individual at one extreme, and that the challenge in question may fall within the legitimate purview of Federal government at the other. There are many levels in between: from the single individual to self-organizing groups of private citizens, to private community organizations, private/local businesses, local government, larger (in scale) private organizations and businesses, state government, national private organizations, large businesses. Solutions could evolve among many of these, singly or in combination, alone or simultaneously –we are not limited to a single solution, and there are benefits to the competition of ideas.

As each solution is considered, ask further: how many people will be negatively affected if the proposed solution turns out to be wrong? How easy, or how hard, to fix, change, or scrap? Government solutions tend to be incredibly resistant to future modification.

How much power is transferred if the decision is made at this level? Who gains, and who loses? Who gets to act, and who will be (forcibly?) acted upon? A lot of what passes for solutions to social problems are thinly disguised attempts at transferring power from one group to another. Ask the question, and put the notion of power visibly up for discussion. This tends to reveal the unspoken motives of the parties involved.

It is reasonable to ask “why not government?” We assume that we are a democratic society (we’re not); the democratic process should be sufficient to create solutions to social and other problems that should be acceptable.

To avoid creating a straw man, let’s reframe slightly. Should we not, if we believe in the value of the democratic process, have faith that government will, in the long run, find the most effective solutions to personal, social, and economic problems?

Would that it could be so. Politicians are human, and come with all the weaknesses inherent in the species. This will not change, and provides more reason to ask the question. Government’s only tool is physical force, which is incompatible with both freedom and liberty. A government solution will force you to compromise on one, or the other, or both, if you want the offered. Politicians, like everyone else, act in their own best interest. It remains unclear how much of a proposed solution is actually in the best interest of the citizenry or our elected representatives.

Beyond philosophical notions of freedom, their are more practical reasons to ask the question. The one-size-fits-all characteristic of government solutions tends to make them fragile, easily disrupted or broken by events not anticipated in the central planning process. Pushing the responsibility down to either local levels or the individual has the additional benefit of broadening the range of possible solutions. Some will succeed, others will fail, but we can learn from all of them. The smaller scale of local solutions means that an ill-conceived idea harms fewer people, and can be more quickly fixed. We become, as a society, more robust.

Most importantly, we learn to trust and respect each other. My solution may not be the same as yours, but if I value the benefits of living in a free society, then I have to give you the space to act on your own logic — as you must similarly grant me. We learn that while we may not be able to solve a global problem by ourselves, we can solve a local piece of it effectively. We become more robust not only in terms of our solutions, but also with respect to our sense of individual and communal competence. We grow our dignity. We believe, bone-deep, that we _can_.

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