One of the great dilemnas and myths in current American thought is that of personal responsibility. People who have underwater mortgages should have known better, the unemployed should have built up the training and expertise to avoid unemployment, and so on. The latest, and the straw that lead me to write this post was an ESPN story where Maurice Clarett says to blame the players, not Ohio State, for the scandals.
And of course, part of the problem with the personal responsibility argument is that it is somewhat true. Yes, some homeowners purchased homes they knew they couldn't afford. Yes, we all knew that communications (or English, or history, or political science, for that matter) degree wasn't going to lead to a job after college. Dropping out of high school is a bad idea. Selling sports memorabilia to boosters is not the kind of amateurism allowed by the NCAA. All of this is true.
At the same time, we have to acknowledge that bigger actors can influence our decision-making. That's because we don't make decisions in a vacuum, but rather, make the best choice possible with the information and wants we have at that very moment. A lot of homeowners, for instance, knew that home values would not continue to rise, but many felt they had no choice - buy now or never get into the market. Little did they know that in 2011, home prices would drop to the 2002 levels. But other people - investment bankers, policy makers, and real estate professionals - knew that this was a possibility, and rather than put the brakes on the real estate market, they made it worse by chopping up the loans, artificially lowering interests rates, and emphasizing home ownership.
The latest with Ohio State and the corruption of the football team, likewise, is utterly predictable. When the actual value of services performed (playing college football) greatly exceeds the price paid for said services (athletic scholarship), someone is going to look for a better deal. And since the price is set artificially low, the better deal will happen on the down low. Yes, the players are responsible, but the conditions set by the NCAA exacerbated the problem.
The other major problem I have with the personal responsibility argument is a total and complete disregard for the repercussions of "bad" behavior. Here's what happened when one man's estranged wife failed to pay her student loans:
Now this is pure insanity. First of all, the woman in question does not live on the property. Second, the failure to pay student loans is a civil issue - the Department of Education (though through a bank) loaned the woman the money, and it can take her to Court to force repayment. Garnishment of wages and other options are perfectly acceptable. But this is not a criminal matter. What if the man in this video, in response to armed men barging in his home, grabbed a firearm (as is his right under the 2nd Amendment). He would have, most likely, been shot, just like happened in Tuscon.
But we ignore all of these things because of the cult of personal responsibility. Until we start looking at the larger picture, we'll continue to go around in circles.