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Shirking responsibility

Responsibility — everyone claims to be in favor of it.  But we possess ingenious abilities to rationalize ourselves out of taking responsibility for our actions.  These rationalizations are a major reason we can’t seem to fix so many of the problems we face, like global warming, poverty, and financial bubbles, etc.

I’m not talking about the everyday shirking of our duties that we all engage in out of laziness: “I’ll clean the cat’s litter box tomorrow,” or “it’s such a hassle to hold onto this cigarette butt, so I’ll just chuck it out the car window.”  That’s part of the problem, yes.  But instead, I’m talking about our political philosophies, which each in their own way provide some excuse for shutting our eyes to the consequences of what we do.

Richard Posner

Richard Posner

For example: John Holbo at Crooked Timber takes issue with Richard Posner’s argument that private bankers were essentially blameless for taking the excessive risks that ultimately brought the financial system to the brink of collapse.  Private bankers’ only responsibility, says Posner, was to pursue profit, and the fact that they were allowed to take dangerous risks can only be blamed on the regulators, and not on the bankers themselves.

Holbo doesn’t entirely like this, but he can’t come right out and say that the bankers had some responsibility for more than just the next quarter’s bottom line.  Instead, Holbo trots out this awkward paragraph:

As a Rawlsian, more or less, I actually sort of like the overall picture here, minus the excessive and rather perverse dogmatic-legalistic strict tidiness of the segregations of duties. It makes sense to have a market in which private actors basically look to their own interests within a system in which regulatory steps have been taken to ensure that they do not, in the aggregate, make a giant, intolerable mess of the whole world. Flawed as any regulatory system is sure to be, it’s less reasonable to expect all the individual actors to be sufficiently attentive to, hence to take individual responsibility for, the whole. We don’t need to go so far as to treat them as weirdly obliged to be totally blinkered to the whole system. But we shouldn’t make each individual responsible for solving what is, in effect, a collective action problem, and a snarly knowledge problem to boot.

Although Holbo seems to disagree with Posner’s style — his “dogmatic-legalistic strict tidiness of the segregation of duties” — he seems to agree with Posner that bankers didn’t need to take any responsibility for the whole economic system.  Even when their actions as bankers were putting that system at risk.  The responsibility for the “whole,” for both Posner and Holbo, is no one’s — unless it says in your job description that it is.  I can’t help but think that’s wrong.

Holbo is right to be repelled by Posner’s narrow approach to responsibility, but I’m fascinated by how handicapped he seems to be when he tries to say something different.  I’m no “Rawlsian” (whatever that is), but I wonder whether the antidote to Holbo’s awkwardness is to try to draw out the difference between what I’ll call “industrial” political philosophies like Holbo’s and Posner’s on the one hand, and “agrarian” political philosophy on the other.

I’m not going to do that in this one post.  But I’ll nibble at it repeatedly on this blog and see if I get anywhere.

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