Monday, November 27, 2006

Whatever Happened to Personal Responsibility?

One of the virtues that made this country great was personal responsibility -- the notion that when something needed to be done, it was up to the individuals and/or the local community to deal with the problem and not the government. Unfortunately, our modern age has gone to great lengths to destroy that virtue.

Mark Steyn aptly notes this trend in American Alone. In the Prologue on page xxix, Steyn notes:
For Al Gore and Paul Ehrlich and Co., whatever the problem, the solution is always the same. Whether its global cooling, global warming, or overpopulation, we need bigger government, more regulation, higher taxes, and a massive transfer of power from the citizen to some unelected, self-perpetuating crisis lobby. Not only does this not solve the problem, it is, in fact, a symptom of the real problem: the torpor of the West derives in part from the annexation by government of most of the core functions of adulthood.
We saw this and its fatal consequences when Hurricane Katrina hit the Gulf Coast. It wasn't that long ago so I won't bore you with the details. However, I'm sure you recall the fall-out from the government's inept response to the disaster.

Note, however, the unchallenged premise of the whole controversy: that it was the responsibility of big government (state and federal) to respond to the disaster. Thousands, if not millions, of Gulf Coast residents sat there amidst the rubble and did nothing because they were waiting for the government to rescue them. Some of them died while they waited.

This point was set in stark contrast for me this past weekend as I read David McCullough's Johnstown Flood. (If you are not familiar with the particulars of that disaster, check out this short article on wikipedia.)

The flood hit Johnstown, Pennsylvania late in the afternoon on Memorial Day 1889, completely destroying a large part of the city and killing 2,200 people. The next day, the survivors did not sit around waiting for the government to rescue them; in fact, I don't think it even crossed their minds. So, what did they do?

The survivors got together and elected one of the town's leading businessman as "dictator". This man (I can't recall his name) immediately formed a number of citizen's committees to address their most pressing needs: emergency morgues were set up to collect the bodies which were laying everywhere; a hospital was established to treat the wounded; rescue teams were formed to search for survivors, etc. Later that day, wagons started showing up from the surrounding countryside as local farmers brought in food, water and clothing.

The residents of Johnstown did not sit on their hands waiting for the government. Their mindset was: we have a disaster here and we need to take charge and deal with the problems. Local farmers did not kick back and say "the government will come to the rescue". On their own initiative, they loaded up provisions and headed into Johnstown to help.

How different we are today. We've been so indoctrinated to depend on the government that when disaster strikes, many of our fellow citizens will literally do nothing and die rather than take responsibility for their situation and their lives.

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