September 18th, 2012

Individual Liberty Requires Personal Responsibility

The following is a magazine article I was asked to write for Young American Revolution. For more on this topic, see my forthcoming book, Latter-day Responsibility: Choosing Liberty Through Personal Accountability.


Liberty is one of the most used—but least understood—terms in modern political discourse. If you doubt this assertion, try asking random people on the street what it means. Most of the responses will likely be superficial and vague. Free speech, limited government, low taxes, gun rights, private property—these and a host of other common replies are not necessarily incorrect, though only capture a small part of what liberty truly is.

This general ignorance suggests a compelling need for educational initiatives, activism projects, and related efforts to thrust into the mainstream a concise and correct definition of liberty. French economist Frédéric Bastiat defined it as “the restricting of the law only to… punishing injustice.” Alternatively, Thomas Jefferson said it is “unobstructed action according to our will within limits drawn around us by the equal rights of others.”

Whatever words are used to define it, liberty needs to be clearly understood before it will ever be respected and protected by a critical mass of people. Unfortunately, even some of liberty’s most prominent proponents either do not understand it or do not correctly teach it. While we in the liberty movement have excelled at talking about liberty in terms of what the government should not do, we have not done so well at discussing what we should do.

This circumstance was perfectly paraphrased by Victor Frankl in Man’s Search for Meaning where he wrote, “Freedom is only part of the story and half of the truth. Freedom is but the negative aspect of the whole phenomenon whose positive aspect is responsibleness. In fact, freedom is in danger of degenerating into mere arbitrariness unless it is lived in terms of responsibleness.” Who in the liberty movement talks about personal responsibility? Where are our advocates, institutions, and rallies to encourage responsibility? Focusing only on freedom means that we’re fighting half of the battles, and are thus more likely to lose the war.

Failing to talk about liberty in terms of personal responsibility is like trying to cut through tyranny with half of a pair of scissors. Put differently, it’s like trying to win a soccer game by fielding only offensive players. While opposing the government’s illegitimate interventions is an important and necessary part of the war to reclaim our liberty, we will not win without also practicing and encouraging personal responsibility.

Imagine a libertarian utopia—a world in which the state was reduced to near or complete non-existence. Would this utopia succeed without responsible individuals taking care of themselves, their family members, and those within their sphere of influence? If with a simple snap of the fingers the government’s invasive influence were removed from our lives, would it be long before a majority of individuals—either unwilling or unable to take care of themselves—succeeded in dragging the rest of us into the same state of affairs in which we now find ourselves?

The exponential rise of the welfare state, the police state, and the nanny state in recent decades has occurred only because individuals have, in the aggregate, avoided the responsibility to take care of and to control themselves. As conservative columnist Walter Williams notes, “Our increased reliance on laws to regulate behavior is a measure of how uncivilized we’ve become.” Breaking society’s reliance on such illegitimate and immoral laws requires civilizing society. In other words, to promote liberty as the antidote to society’s problems, we must prescribe and administer the medicine: personal responsibility.

Some bristle at the priority of personal responsibility, wondering if liberty in fact becomes held hostage to responsibility as a result. Do individuals only enjoy liberty when they have first achieved some arbitrary societal standard of sufficient personal responsibility? Must we implicitly consent to a government which infringes on our rights until and unless we all are living our lives as we should?

The answer is found in understanding the nature of the relationship between liberty and responsibility. The one implies the other, and each are co-dependent states. Liberty is not fully contingent upon responsibility, nor is the reverse true. Rather, each influences the other—as we become more responsible, we are able to enjoy more liberty. Conversely, as we become less responsible, we become less free.

“He therefore is the truest friend of the liberty of his country,” wrote Samuel Adams, “who tries most to promote its virtue.” Adams was right, and his comments clarify why so many in the liberty movement are not as effective as they otherwise might be. To achieve lasting change, our efforts to promote liberty must run parallel to similarly organized, articulated, and passionate efforts to promote personal responsibility.

6 Responses to “Individual Liberty Requires Personal Responsibility”

  1. Jonathan
    September 18, 2012 at 11:58 am #

    Well said. This same conversation is one that I had with my oldest son last night. He wants more freedom and I want him to have more freedom. Before he gains any freedom, he must show responsibility for the freedom that he currently has. The same applies to people of all ages. Responsibility begets freedom.

  2. Amber
    September 18, 2012 at 2:13 pm #

    Freedom means nothing without personal responsibility.

    By the way, I’m hoping someone buys me your book for Christmas.

  3. outside the corridor
    September 19, 2012 at 8:39 am #

    good job, Connor–food for thought here–

    My belief in personal responsibility/accountability is behind most of my political ‘stands’–including not wanting to force ‘moral’ legislation on people–

    but I really have come to believe that most people, IF they knew about it, want to be independent under heaven–

    but they don’t know about it–:(
    Little children want independence–

    and parents don’t teach consequences as much anymore–

    or they teach them within a very limited sphere–

    it’s a big mess–

    All of us need a ‘hands up’ now and again; some of us were born into families that were secure enough to give us the help we need to survive in Babylon (*here*)–

    others not–

    that is where the issue becomes sticky; those who are born into situations where there are no tools easily become victims of a ‘state’ that wants to enslave them–by giving them enough that they don’t have to want to take care of themselves–

    on the other hand, most of the people *I* know at present who are needy and using the ‘system’ are handicapped in one way or another and don’t have any other backup–

    while independence and hard work are so vital–

    our current national economy (and even local economies) are set up to make it difficult for those who are challenged to survive–

    it has always been a sort of odd comfort to know that if we HAD to, we could ‘go to the church’ for ‘help’, but we never have–

    and as we have heard horror stories about bishops setting ridiculous limits and expectations on the qualifications to get help–

    we are glad we have not–

    this is a highly perplexing issue–

    I am NOT in agreement with Romney on this, however–

    he seems to believe that most other humans (besides himself and perhaps his followers) simply want to take from him and other wealthy people–

    where, in reality, he has used money to make money and sometimes in highly questionable ways–

    I can’t take people like him seriously–

    or I do take them seriously and find them frightening–

    experiencing consequences and dealing with them is an exhilerating phenomenon for those who have the tools (mind power/body power/spiritual power) to deal with it–

    for those who haven’t learned how to experience consequences or who are ‘outcast’–

    it is something altogether different and not pretty–

  4. the commish
    September 19, 2012 at 9:52 pm #

    as we become more responsible, we are able to enjoy more liberty. Conversely, as we become less responsible, we become less free.

    This connection might apply in an abstract world where external government force does not exist and ur talking about individual growth and expression. IOW, this is the type of thing many LDS talk about as an argument for the Drug War…if ur high on drugs ur not free etc. But an individual’s level of responsibility has zero bearing on the level of government intrusion into their life. IOW, if i am completely responsible in every way for my actions and i take nothing from the state, my individual level of reliance will not affect the amount of state intrusion into my life.

    so while there is undoubtedly some connection in our own history between the level of aggregate responsibility and the level of state intrusion, it’s a one way street…u cannot unilaterally expand self-reliance and expect a corresponding decrease in government intrusion. Once the powers that be have obtained control, they never voluntarily relinquish it.

  5. Rhonda
    September 26, 2012 at 10:04 pm #

    the commish:

    This is exactly the problem I’ve been struggling with.

    Apparently I need to help convince my city council to do all they can to allow the idea of responsibility to spread- so that we can enjoy more freedom.

    They say they have to micromanage because some citizens have no common sense. But those of us who DO have it, and who do care about being good neighbors, are stuck with the overregulation.

    I think that the public promotion- by the city council- of the Ten Commandments would be a good start to encouraging responsibility.

    Not sure how well they’ll respond to the suggestion.

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  1. The Gospel of Liberty | Mormon Chronicle - October 16, 2012

    [...] Recently, Connor Boyack posted an article on his blog in which he posed the question, “What is liberty?” You can read his post here: [...]

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