Responsibility Means More Indians, Fewer Chiefs

October 19, 2009

(Editors: Please note that this week’s dispatch includes two articles by economist Maryann Keating: The first on the conflicted relationship between societal aspirations and individual responsibility; and the second on the question of public willingness to support education at current spending levels.)

For release noon Tuesday Sept. 20 and thereafter (625 words)

Our obsession with leadership misses the point. When an increase in accepting responsibility is really needed, leaders, who believe themselves gifted with particular insight on what others should be doing, are generally not in short supply.   

It is amusing to read the comments of those who know precisely what is needed, for example, in how to revitalize town centers. Cute sandwich shops, boutique grocery stores, and fashion outlets . . . the list goes on. One wonders if they or theirs would be willing to assume the overwhelming financial, legal and employer responsibilities of setting up such shops.

Does today’s society reflect a decrease in individuals’ sense of responsibility along with stronger opinions on what should be?

It is relatively easy to make the case that we have become more hedonistic. Our ancestors would be horrified to learn that children seldom walk to school, parents expect them to be fed up to two meals a day there, and most of us are clueless about hemming a garment or automobile repair. Adolescence extends through the twenties. Elders are horrified at the extent to which we eat out, hire lawn services and go to the mall for pedicures.

Responsibility is not completely lost. Indiana ranks 10th among states in the total number of military recruits; over 3,300 Hoosiers have recently volunteered. Regardless of age, about one in every two Hoosiers holds a job, and each Indiana household provides on average a home for 2.3 persons.

Actually, our ancestors may have had it easier. Air travel is less pleasant and trains are virtually nonexistent. Seriously ill folks are released to be nursed at home after short hospital stays. Neighborhood play has given way to 24-7 parenting. Utility bills take increasingly higher percentages of net income. 

Nor is personal irresponsibility necessarily a generational thing. Young persons expect to cover two shifts: one at work and one at home. In addition, many have to come to terms with the fact that the abandonment and negligence, experienced through the behavior of their parents, does not entitle them to act likewise. 

About 13 percent of Hoosiers are over 65 years of age and for most their days of earning a paycheck are over. Nevertheless, they continue to maintain households and do as much as possible for themselves and others. They minimize the expense inflicted on family members and society by caring for themselves. Many volunteer care for the million-plus disabled Hoosiers and others in need. The value created by these responsible ones is not included in the Gross Domestic Product but is real and significant. 

Each person in every age has to come to terms with his or her responsibilities, and society is better off if the number of free riders is minimized. Responsible behavior, however, cannot be taken for granted. 

Why don’t we observe more shirking? For many, belief in a final reckoning at death is a powerful motivator. Others make a personal commitment to themselves to honor all contracts freely entered into and to accept duties imposed by the state. Some say, “What goes round comes round.”  This last reason is somewhat weak, because not everyone reaps what he or she has sown. This year’s economics Nobel laureate, Elinor Ostrom of Indiana University, suggests that based on her research some individuals are predisposed to freely contribute to the common good. This initial tendency to cooperate is conditional, however, and decays rapidly if others are not forthcoming. 

It is in the public interest that Individuals, willing to establish enterprises and form households, not be made to feel like saps. These are not “leaders” as such, but rather those who create the environment for others to assume responsibility.

Of course, honoring commitments and leaving only footprints is less ego-boosting than leadership.

Maryann O. Keating, Ph.D., an adjunct scholar of the Indiana Policy Review Foundation, is a member of the associate faculty at Indiana University South Bend. Contact her at


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