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Against Personal Responsibility for Welfare

Robert Goodin
Publication date: 
Tue, 28 Apr 2009

Sometimes people's misfortunes are the consequence of chance, bad luck pure and simple. Other times they are the natural consequence of choices those people have freely made. A popular position, both in political philosophy and popular political discourse, says that people should be responsible for their own welfare. 

This principle is embodied in welfare reforms across the US, UK and much of the OECD world, requiring welfare recipients to sign 'contracts', 'compacts' or 'activation agreements' with caseworkers and allowing recipients to be 'breached off' the welfare programmes for failure to live up to those commitments.
Instead of backward-looking blame-responsibility, public policy should be organized around forward-looking principles of task-responsibility. The issue should not be 'who caused the problem' but, rather, who is best able to get us out of the problem.
In practice it is impossible to get the fine-grained personalized information that would be required to implement, without unacceptable levels of error, policies holding people personally responsible for their own welfare and denying public benefits to those whose plight is their own fault. Philosophers are wrong to recommend policies, impervious to the practical consequences of implementing them.