A Question Of Rights Just How Much Of A Burden Should A Society Shoulder For Its Individual Members?

September 08, 1991|By A. M. Chaplin


Drug-testing of people like pilots and train engineers.

Maryland motorcyclists, who as adults are required neither to wear helmets nor to carry medical insurance.

A 15-year-old mother applying for welfare benefits.

A sudden plant closing.

The answer is not that they raise your blood pressure, though that's close. No, what these situations and individuals have in common is that they all exist at a very tricky place -- the slippery nexus of rights and responsibilities in late 20th century America.

They exist at a point where Americans begin to argue about what rights (or responsibilities) the individual has, and what rights (or responsibilities) the larger group has. They are all about who owes what to whom -- and, perhaps, about whose welfare is most important, the group's or the individual's. Like this:

Is drug-testing of pilots and engineers evidence of a new Puritanism, an unwarranted governmental intrusion into private affairs, the first step down the slippery slope to a police state? Or does society have the right -- indeed, the responsibility -- to protect its citizens from those who drive or pilot irresponsibly?

Are Maryland's motorcyclists exercising their rights as free men and women in a free society to feel the wind in their hair when they so choose, or by doing so are they placing an unjust burden on the society of which they are a part?

Does the young welfare mother owe anything to society in return for the check she gets? Or is such a suggestion evidence of a moralistic imposition of values, and probably racist to boot?

Does society owe something beyond sympathy to individuals thrown out of work by a plant closing? Should, for example, the society require as it now does that companies give reasonable notice before closing? Or have the companies already discharged their responsibilities to the individual by providing him or her with employment for as long as it was economically feasible to do so?

YOU GET THE IDEA. AL- though some Americans will find the answers to these questions easy -- maybe too easy -- others will tear their hair, throw up their hands and say there aren't any answers, or that the alternatives proposed just don't cut it.

Their confusion reflects the turmoil in the society around them. For the past couple of decades American society has tended to come down on the side of the individual and his or her rights, and to emphasize what society owes that individual rather than the other way around. But now some of those Americans who in the past have supported such measures are beginning to ask if perhaps they've gone too far. They are saying that perhaps it's time to start talking about what the individual owes society as well as the other way around.

These critics are also saying that the political system, which has always been the all-American way of fairly adjusting the balance between rights and responsibilities, has become mired in an outmoded debate that can't adjust anything. They say that with the Democrats frozen in the society-owes-the-individual posture, and the Republicans stuck in the individual-owes-the-society position, neither party is able to connect with the middle ground where most Americans live and breathe.

And as a result we have a stalemate, such critics say, and in the place of a responsible citizenry we have a nation of whiners and litigants and blamers, blaming the credit-card companies when they get into debt, the Japanese when American products fail to sell, the bartender when they have a drunk-driving accident, the doctor if their children are born defective, the test when they flunk -- blaming white people, black people, male people, straight people, any people, any person, anything, anyone but ,, themselves.

THEORIES ABOUT THE genesis of the United States of Blame range all over the map.

Take the political one first. The idea of individual responsibility is deeply rooted in American political history, says William A. Galston, professor at the school of public affairs at the University Maryland, College Park. And it still thrives: Most Americans believe they rise or fall as a result of their own efforts.

But, Dr. Galston continues, events such as the Depression and the civil rights movement also have powered another view of where responsibility belongs: a view that sees the structures of a society, its institutions and government, as also playing a vital role in how things turn out for individuals.

Thus, when the Great Depression began, Dr. Galston says, people at first tried to deal with the economywide distress as individuals, blaming themselves for their usually inevitable failures. But by the mid-1930s "there was a tremendous shift in attitudes, and we began to see these problems as a result of structural problems that individuals couldn't and shouldn't hold themselves responsible for." In other words, it wasn't you and me to blame, it was "it" or "them."

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