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Free to Be Responsible

Personal responsibility and other keys to American renewal, from John Andrews, doing the right thing.

By 12.5.11

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Responsibility Reborn: A Citizen's Guide to the Next American Century
By John Andrews
(Denali Press, 175 pages, $19.99)

Personal responsibility is an eroded American value. Republicans largely preach freedom, Democrats equality, but responsibility, when mentioned at all, plays second string. It's no wonder, then, that America is becoming bailout nation.

The year 2011 was a good time for John Andrews, former Republican president of the Colorado Senate and long-time conservative think-tanker, to pen Responsibility Reborn: A Citizen's Guide to the Next American Century. The pull-yourself-up-by-your-bootstraps tenet is alive and well among many Americans, but their number is shrinking in favor of those who covet European-style handouts.

The Occupy movement has shown that reality in vibrant Technicolor: The violence, sexual assault, and disregard for private property. Mobilized as a political force, envy is among the most powerful of human vices.

What's the cure? Personal responsibility, defined by Andrews as "the quintessential American character trait" of doing "the right thing by choice." It's a value that Andrews believes can pull the United States out of the moral quagmire and put her on the path to a second American century.

It won't be easy. Liberalism appeals to baser instincts: envy, jealousy, and sloth, to name three. Conservatism requires far more of us: accountability for our own decisions and voluntary restraint in our actions. Although lawmaking plays a role in fostering such values, there is no substitute for cultural renewal arising from the private domain -- marriages and families, schools and churches.

"Our toughest challenges now are not political. They are moral," Andrews writes. "Civil government will get better when individual self-government does, and not until then."

Andrews traces the genesis of the irresponsibility movement to the cultural upheavals of the mid-20th century. He says that "pampered young" threw a "national tantrum" in the 1960s. It worsened in the '70s, a decade of moral decadence and economic stagnation.

"Dependency on government was up," Andrews says. "Promiscuity, illegitimacy, and divorce were up. Crime and drug abuse were up. Black poverty was up. Family stability and childbearing were down. Academic standards were down and educators were disrespected. The warrior spirit was down and soldiers were spat upon."

But even as cultural and economic liberalism made sweeping gains, Andrews points to the rising sun of conservatism, born out of the dark days of moral decay after Watergate. It was an economic and social force that beat back the tides of unchecked liberalism. Andrews' thesis: A renewal of this responsibility movement is needed if America is to continue as a great nation.

Don't mistake Responsibility Reborn exclusively as a conservative call to arms against the excesses of liberalism, though. It's certainly that, but it's also a call for self-reflection among lovers of freedom. Andrews carefully probes a sore spot in conservative circles: the seeming conflict between personal freedom -- the right to do what I want -- and personal responsibility -- the right to do what I should.

With the all-out assault on individual freedom prorogated by the proponents of big government, conservatives are concerned chiefly with ensuring that liberty endures. But in so doing, have we lost sight of personal responsibility?

It's a question that Andrews wrestles with. His conclusion (emphasis mine): 

Until quite recently, my keynote for a personal testament and a reflection on citizenship would not have been responsibility and obligation, duty and trust. It would have been freedom and independence, rights and liberty.… Yet in reflecting on my life as a whole -- family, friendships, schooling, military service, career, community, church -- I've realized that most of it was not about doing what I chose, but doing what I should. The moral and ethical component is inescapable in a life well lived, whether for an individual or a nation.

Preaching responsibility isn't as sexy as preaching freedom, but it is no less critical. The two concepts go hand in hand. A nation can't be free without citizens who take responsibility for their actions; true responsibility isn't possible outside the sphere of freedom.

The big question conservatives must answer is, "Freedom for what?" Freedom should not be license to become libertine, but to do what's right. "For you were called to freedom, brothers," the Apostle Paul writes. "Only do not use your freedom as an opportunity for the flesh, but through love serve one another."

Andrews suggests that conservatives -- and, more broadly, Americans -- return to such an ethic. "What government should or shouldn't do is an important question for keeping America true to itself," he writes. "But too narrow a focus on that question has tended to distract conservatives from one that's even more important: What qualities of character are essential to sustain a free and good society?" (Emphasis in original.)

Along those lines, Andrews' prescription for cultural and economic renewal in the United States is, first, personal and, second, political. He calls for strengthening families, expanding charity, expecting more of churches, and renewing a common culture. "The higher we score on the scale of character," he writes, "the more fit we are for freedom -- and the less need there is for intrusive restrictions by government."

Responsibility Reborn is an excellent charter for the responsibility movement. Despite the challenges of contemporary political life and the excesses of American culture, Andrews' treatise is infused with optimism. The next few years are critical in determining whether America will stagnate or see a rebirth of responsibility.

"It's a great time to be alive," Andrews writes. "Now comes the decade of decision."

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About the Author
David N. Bass is a journalist who writes from the Old North State. Follow him on Twitter.