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Not My Responsibility

“One thing you can do for your country is to reserve a spacious portion of your own life for which you–not your country–are responsible.”
–George F. Will

The other day I was waiting for a take-out order at a local restaurant when I glimpsed a sign back toward the kitchen. It was a motivational reminder intended for employees: “Think good thoughts, speak kind words, do good things; your job is to make the world a better place.” 

Who could take exception to that? How could positive thoughts and actions ever be a bad thing, and why shouldn’t everyone strive to improve the world? But as I pondered it further, I found myself at odds with the final clause. No, it actually isn’t my job to make the world a better place. It’s only my job to take care of my own place within the world. Not only that, every puffed-up, often-wrong-though-never-in-doubt, legend-in-his-own-mind visionary who has ever arrogated that world-improving responsibility to himself has invariably ended up making an utter cock of it, often at a magnitude for which the word “catastrophic” would, if anything, be a gross understatement.

Everyone at least occasionally catches himself reciting the “if everyone did it” quip.  Why is it a big deal if I drop a cigarette butt in the grass at the park?  Well, if everyone did it, the grass at the park would consist of cigarette butts and little else. While my typical response to this is, “well, everyone ISN’T doing it,” the observation has its utility. Yet the thing that would attain significance if everyone did it is always a negative. Little thought ever seems to go toward what would happen if everyone simply attended to the most uncomplicated, undisputed and fundamental responsibilities they have to themselves and those with a clear moral claim to dependency upon them. Not Great Works or Campaigns for Cosmic Justice or Five-Year Plans or Extraordinary Visions–just keeping one’s little sphere swept-up and well-tended. What would happen, of course, would be a drastically reduced need for both public and private charity and more than enough resources left over to assist the few who are legitimately incapable of looking after even their own little spheres. Boiled all down and writ large, what is charity if not taking up the slack for those failing to attend to their most basic responsibilities?

What would a list of such fundamentals look like?  Perhaps this:

1. Don’t bring children into the world you’re incapable of properly providing for, both in terms of their physical needs and by putting in the time required to raise them to productive, self-sufficient adulthood.

2. Engage in productive work producing goods or services for which there is actual market demand. If you’re an “artist” whose work nobody wants demanding a hand-out from government so that you can pursue your hobby, however passionate you are about it, you’re no different from (and no less a parasite than) an idle person.

3. Don’t, through negligence or recklessness, become a problem for others. This means, among other things, not engaging in physically risky or unhealthy behavior when you can’t afford medical care or private insurance, or when becoming incapacitated through your own fault will render you incapable of taking care of any of the other four items on this list.

4. Pay taxes. Nearly half of you don’t.

5. Don’t default on debts. You aren’t pulling one over on a big, soulless, impersonal institution when you borrow money you can’t repay; you’re making it more onerous for your neighbor to obtain needed capital when the bank raises interest rates or makes lending standards more restrictive in response to your flakiness.

There are undoubtedly more than the five very elementary things just listed, but who among us has even the foregoing well in hand? Certainly not I (Number 3, in particular), and probably not even the most saintly. So what use is there in sojourning into the world of showy, generally self-congratulatory beneficence when our own side of the street is a shambles? Thus does it so often seem those most neglectful of their immediate duties make the biggest spectacle of their public virtue. While I’m sure I’ve used Greg Gutfeld’s observation in a previous essay (though shot if I can remember where), I’ll lean on it again for its poignancy: (A progressive) “will tell you, over the course of many hours, how important it is to have proper irrigation in Third World countries, and he will tell you how he is going to make that happen–probably by running a workshop at the Learning Annex.  But then, of course, back home–he’s late on his rent, he doesn’t buy butter, and he eats all of his roommates’ food.  He continues to borrow money from friends (and never repays), while spending it on pot–and he hasn’t cleaned the bathroom in years.  He’ll say he only thinks of others, i.e., those he’s never met.  The other ‘others’–those who actually have to deal with him–want to dismember him with a dull butter knife.  This is why, in any family where there is a problem child . . . the kind that squanders parental love and opportunity in a quest for self-aggrandizement–he or she is almost always an activist.”

Harping on the distinction between our cosmic and our more earthbound, immediate responsibilities is important because while the former is ethereal, the latter is actually attainable. By striving to our utmost to attain it, the “job” of making the world a better place becomes self-executing.

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