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

by Yascha Mounk

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412515,574 (5)None
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. 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.--… (more)
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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. ( )
  arosoff | Jul 11, 2021 |
Promising book, but the writing style could be made tighter and the arguments more clearly spelled out. What, for instance, IS 'the age of responsibility' which no one can deny? ( )
  vegetarian | Jul 31, 2017 |
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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 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. 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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