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The Silly False Debate Between Individual Responsibility and Mutual Obligation

David Callahan

With debate heating up over inequality and social mobility, it's time for yet another airing of one of the least productive debates in American politics: whether it's up to individuals or society to ensure economic success. 

We all know how this debate goes because it's been a staple of national discourse, like, forever. The right argues that individual behavior and choice is all important: It's up to you. If you pay attention in school, work hard, stay sober, keep out of trouble, marry young, and save and sacrifice for the future, you'll get ahead just fine. The left argues that systemic factors are all-important, and that it's all up to us to undertake common action to improve educational opportunity, ensure full employment, reduce institutional racism, limit corporate power, and help people back to their feet when they fall. If we do all that, everyone will be just fine. 
If you're a full-time political or policy combatant, you don't have any incentive to cede an inch of ground in this debate to the other side. You want to keep the spotlight focused on the factors your side believes are most important. 
Of course, though, most normal people -- people who aren't all armored up for the battle of ideas -- know that both individual choice and structural factors are important. Depending upon your values, you'll lean more in one direction or the other in this debate, but generally most non-ideologues will readily cede that both factors matter. 
That's why most normal people want an economic and social policy regime that stresses both mutual obligation and personal responsibility. The great majority of Americans support Social Security, Medicare, and many other elements of the social safety net. And they want government to create jobs (directly if necessary) and otherwise ensure full employment. But most people also believe that everyone should be expected to work and nobody should get something for nothing. And, as a complement to that view, most people believe that personal responsibility should be adequately rewarded: That if you work hard, you should be able to get ahead. Which is why the public strongly supports a higher minimum wage and support for young people who want to improve themselves by going to college. 
If you're immersed in the ideological arms race, the gap between the left and the right over mobility and inequality can seem like an unbridgeable divide between absolutist understandings of how success happens, But if you just talk to, well, nearly anyone who is not thus immersed, you'll see that this vast divide is largely an illusion.
What does all this mean for progressives? As I argued in the my book, The Moral Center, I think the left can and should push bolder ideas -- for instance, single-payer health insurance and a public jobs program -- but we also need to get a lot better at weaving personal responsibility into our narrative so we're speaking to all those normal people who know that success is not an either-or proposition as seen on Crossfire. If we don't, it can seem like progressives only care about society's role in helping people advance -- which just isn't true. In my own experience, most progressives are with normal people in believing that personal volition plays a big role in the real world. We just believe that structural factors are much more important right now and we worry about diluting that message in the current polarized environment. I'd bet that there are plenty of conservatives who privately acknowledge a bigger role for systemic factors than they're comfortable stressing publicly. 
Both sides need to get over their fears of ceding ground. When they do, we'll have a more honest debate about opportunity and success in America.