Thoughts on Responsibility
There are individuals who describe themselves as living by traditionally libertarian values such as autonomy, personal freedom (usually freedom of choice or market freedom), individualism, and self-sufficiency. These traits on their own — or in moderation — aren’t inherently harmful, but it is often the people who hold these values that seem to believe that government intervention into the lives of “free people” is the root cause of society’s problems. This conception has seemingly contributed to the current state of paranoia (or fear) around vaccinations and public health protections within a vocal subgroup of our population during the ongoing covid-19 pandemic.
From my limited understanding of fundamentalist libertarians, these people genuinely believe that many of our societal issues (i.e., unemployment, homelessness, wealth inequality etc.) can be solved through individual responsibility. They feel that free citizens who take greater responsibility and show initiative can “pick themselves up by their bootstraps” to get themselves out of any predicament they find themselves in. This is in contrast to any conceivable form of government intervention (i.e., social programs and associated taxes) which might seek to mitigate the systemic issues which I believe are the root cause of the majority of society’s ills.
The libertarian emphasis on responsibility is what I find most interesting about their value system, because I also believe that responsibility is key to solving many of our intersectional crises that we currently face including climate change, biodiversity loss, and the seemingly endless pandemic. However, I don’t think that taking individual responsibility for ourselves and ourselves alone is the answer. We need to take greater responsibility for others.
Others include our local communities, those who have been marginalized by the legacy of colonialism, capitalism, and/or racism, future generations who will inherit the world we leave for them, and the non-human others who makeup the ecosystems (i.e., plants, animals, water, bacteria, fungi etc.) that we all rely on for a stable climate and our own survival. It is not until we recognize the importance of this responsibility for sustaining and supporting our relations to all other beings that we will make it out of the mess we currently find ourselves within.
One of the major problems that currently prevents us from achieving greater solidarity with one another is that we are currently stuck in a capitalist society that grants us so little free time that we are too busy focusing on ourselves to care about one another. Most of us are forced to work the majority of our lives, earning minimal wages from one or more jobs, just to meet our own basic needs for food and shelter that we hardly have time to think about those around us. We have become so self-centered through our participation in a world that is incredibly unforgiving if you slip up even slightly. This is a world where most of us are so close to falling between the cracks — cracks that the underprivileged are forced to occupy on a daily basis. Unemployment and homelessness are intrinsic to capitalism because if people didn’t have to worry about feeding themselves or putting a roof over their head, they might actually consider leaving jobs that make them unhappy.
This is one of the main arguments for why a universal basic income (UBI) or a similar form of guaranteed income might help liberate people from the drudgery of meaningless work. Knowing that our basic needs are provided for would allow us to take on jobs, projects, or other commitments that we find fulfilling rather than solely out of necessity for survival. I feel that social programs such as UBI, public housing, free post-secondary education, medical care, child care, maternity leave, and public transportation (among others) are ways that we could significantly reduce the burden of individual responsibility, giving us more free time to care for ourselves and for one another. What some libertarians see as the government trying to limit their individual freedoms, I see as mechanisms that might enable our genuine freedom. We could shift our focus away from individual survival and towards caring for our communities.
Through my (very limited) readings on black liberation, climate justice, Indigenous value systems, socialist philosophy, and intersectionality, I have developed a better understanding of — and appreciation for — working class solidarity, reciprocity, and my responsibility to others. I’m just another wage-labourer working in a relentless capitalist economy that values GDP over human (and non-human) life. I know that I only have a limited amount of time that I can dedicate to those around me while still taking care of my own needs, but I also know that I’m in a more privileged position than many others find themselves in.
I feel that I have both the privilege and the responsibility to talk about these issues from a position of relative safety as a cis-hetero, able-bodied, white man. I have a certain level of freedom that means I don’t have to worry about my survival while many others do. So I use this position of privilege to try and help educate others, to make people think differently, to center the marginalized in my thoughts and my actions, because maybe these behaviours will inspire others to do the same. I’m not an expert on these issues by any means, and I hope to continue listening and learning so that I can be a better ally to those who need my support. To paraphrase Dr. Kimberly Williams from her book Stampede, I know my efforts are imperfect, but I hope that they are at least helpful in the struggle, rather than harmful.