A New York Times Book Review Editors’ Choice
Responsibility—which once meant the moral duty to help and support others—has come to be equated with an obligation to be self-sufficient. This has guided recent reforms of the welfare state, making key entitlements conditional on good behavior. Drawing on political theory and moral philosophy, Yascha Mounk shows why this re-imagining of personal responsibility is pernicious—and suggests how it might be overcome.
“This important book prompts us to reconsider the role of luck and choice in debates about welfare, and to rethink our mutual responsibilities as citizens.”
—Michael J. Sandel, author of Justice
“A smart and engaging book… Do we so value holding people accountable that we are willing to jeopardize our own welfare for a proper comeuppance?”
—New York Times Book Review
“An important new book… [Mounk] mounts a compelling case that political rhetoric…has shifted over the last half century toward a markedly punitive vision of social welfare.”
—Los Angeles Review of Books
“A terrific book. The insight at its heart—that the conception of responsibility now at work in much public rhetoric and policy is both punitive and ill-conceived—is very important and should be widely heeded.”
—Jedediah Purdy, author of After Nature: A Politics for the Anthropocene
A terrific book. The insight at its heart—that we live in an ‘age of responsibility,’ and that the conception of responsibility now at work in much public rhetoric and policy is both punitive and ill-conceived—is very important and should be widely heeded.
Yascha Mounk traces the faltering legitimacy of the welfare state to the narrow notion of personal responsibility that politicians—and many philosophers—have come to embrace. In a compelling challenge to conservatives and liberals alike, this important book prompts us to reconsider the role of luck and choice in debates about welfare, and to rethink our mutual responsibilities as citizens.
[A] smart and engaging book…Does it make sense, [Mounk] wonders, to focus so much on whether a sick poor person is responsible for not having acquired health insurance? Given that studies suggest public health and economic growth would benefit if he (and others like him) had coverage, shouldn’t we consider providing it regardless of whether he ‘deserves’ it? Or do we so value holding people accountable that we are willing to jeopardize our own welfare for a proper comeuppance? …Mounk contends [that] too many advocates unwittingly accept the punitive framework of accountability and, following its logic, end up patronizing those they want to help.
[An] important new book…Over the course of the past half century, Mounk points out, political officials of both major parties have turned repeatedly to the core value of personal responsibility, calling on it to redefine the purposes and design of government as well as pushing the state to play an ever more disciplinary role in relation to its most vulnerable citizens. They have been motivated, Mounk suggests, not merely by a political agenda, but by a fantasy of the just social order—a vision in which each individual person cares for herself and the government acts to ensure that citizens receive only the public support their efforts merit. The dream, as Mounk reveals, is a narrow and crabbed one. Placed under his precise and dispassionate analysis, it shows itself to be conceptually dubious and empirically unworkable. But the fantasy has attracted plenty of influential adherents. Indeed, among the most troubling of Mounk’s arguments is the claim that the liberal defenders of the welfare state no less than its conservative antagonists have signed on to the dream of personal responsibility. No surprise, then, that a thin theory of individual agency has come to dominate our ideas about freedom and that an impoverished language of citizenship has crowded out alternative visions of democratic society…He mounts a compelling case, that political rhetoric in the United States—and to a lesser, but still significant degree in other industrialized democracies—has shifted over the last half century toward a markedly punitive vision of social welfare. This trend has coincided with policy transformations that have served to discipline individual citizens by demanding that they bear the costs of their own behavior and the risks of a hazardous world. The age of responsibility, in this view, is not only the period that brought us workfare and conditional unemployment benefits—and, one might add, mass incarceration…Where ideas of the public good or of shared responsibility once prevailed, private interest is now the presumptive guide.
Impressive, frequently charming…It seems aimed to appeal well beyond the philosophical community, with hopes of motivating a thoughtful and concerned readership to revamp the way our conception of ‘personal responsibility’ functions in political and social life. The book employs a fair amount of extant philosophical work to provoke a change in our public discourse and practices, while also performing some creative philosophical work that might be of interest to disciplinary philosophers. It is overall an erudite and enjoyably readable book…Mounk’s book is a laudable and fruitful achievement.
- 288 pages
- 0-3/4 x 5-1/2 x 8-1/4 inches
- Harvard University Press
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