President Obama recently claimed that successful entrepreneurs are not responsible for the success of their businesses. The president and his defenders now allege that he did not mean what he said, but it is clear that these words were merely an awkward restatement of Elizabeth Warren's well-received speech (among liberals) about the social contract. It did not take long for the President to learn that what sounds like common sense when uttered by Ms. Warren in a living room in Massachusetts may sound heretical when repeated elsewhere.
Many conservatives have rightly noted that this approach fails to give the successful entrepreneur his or her due. It is left to notice that, to be logically consistent, the liberal advocates of the doctrine of non-responsibility would also have to apply this doctrine to the massacre in Aurora, Colorado. To use the words of Ms. Warren, we educated the alleged murderer, James Holmes, in our public schools, and he used the roads that we built to get to the movie theater. It even appears that he may have purchased the weapons he used to commit the murders with federal grant money that our taxes supplied. If society is responsible for the entrepreneur's success, as President Obama and Ms. Warren apparently believe, we are also responsible for the alleged murderer's crimes.
This modern, liberal doctrine of non-responsibility is a world apart from the traditional understanding of personal responsibility upon which our society was originally built. The traditional view is that much of life is within our own control, that for the most part we bring about our own happiness or misery through the choices we make, and that we deserve the consequences of these choices. "Character is destiny," Heraclitus famously said, and this was the view of the Founders of the U.S. as well. The words of early American statesman Nathaniel Chipman are typical: "Riches are the fruit of industry. ... Wealth, or at least, a competency, is the reward, provided by the laws of nature, for prudent industry; want, the punishment of idleness and profligacy" (Sketches of the Principles of Government, 1793).
This way of understanding personal responsibility provides a motive for performing actions that are difficult in the present but have good consequences later on. It also provides a reason to avoid actions that are pleasant at the time but lead to disaster. As Senator John B. Henderson said on the Senate floor in 1866, "the indulgence of evil is followed by punishment, because it is an inexorable law of man's organization. The choice of good is followed by happiness, contentment, and prosperity. It is thus wisely ordained, that interest may constrain to duty, in the exercise of which the world is advanced and man is ennobled."
The problem with the liberal doctrine of non-responsibility and redistribution of consequences is that it provides no motivation to do what is right, and no reason to abstain from evil.