The flavor of the moment in the GOP presidential field is Herman Cain, whose poll numbers are on the rise. The former CEO of Godfather Pizza and an African-American self-made millionaire, Cain embodies the promise of the American Dream. So people sat up and listened last week when he opined about the "Occupy Wall Street" protests. He said that people who are suffering in this economy should not blame Wall Street or big banks. Instead, "if you don't have a job and you're not rich, blame yourself! ... It is a person's fault if they fail."
This was a ham-fisted way of articulating what one often hears from politicians of all stripes: people should be accountable for their choices. But Cain's bluntness makes clear that a fixation on personal responsibility often ends up as victim-blaming. If you don't have a job, the one most to blame is you.
As I discuss in my book The Myth of Choice (out just this week), he's wrong both on facts and principle. Sure, some of America's unemployed or poor suffer that fate because of their own bad choices, and an occasional entrepreneur will pull themselves up by their bootstraps and become Steve Jobs or Herman Cain. But the fact is that most Americans who find themselves in dire economic straits did not make the choices that put them there, and don't have many options for getting out.
The primary origins of our economic spiral were in the board rooms and trading floors of Wall Street and in the halls of Washington, not around kitchen tables in Des Moines and Denver. It was not the lower-level employees of failed companies who made the decisions that forced factories closed and storefronts shuttered. Some of us may have taken out more loans than we should have, or charged more on our credit cards than was wise. But those slippery slopes were greased by predatory lenders and mortgage brokers who stood to make millions from their manipulative enticements of quick access to the American dream.
As for getting out of this mess, there is only so much any individual can do. Regular Joes and Josephines cannot pass a jobs bill or cut payroll taxes. Those out of work have no power to force corporations to spend the cash they are hoarding. In fact, for every open job there are four unemployed applicants clamoring for it.
People shouldn't be blamed for not choosing work when the choice to work doesn't exist. Pulling on bootstraps works only when you have boots, and only when someone isn't holding you down.
As a matter of principle, Cain's brand of personal responsibility is mistaken because, ironically, it allows some people to avoid responsibility. If people who are poor and unemployed are solely at fault for their own situation, it allows the derivatives traders, mortgage brokers, and government regulators who helped create the situation to escape blame.
The reality is that our economic situation had multiple causes. To focus on those hurt worst as the ones most to blame is as offensive as it is wrong.
Why, then, does the rhetoric of self-reliance have such traction? Sometimes the rhetoric of choice is merely a cover for those like Cain who have already "made it." They can point to people's existing situation as representing the product of their own choices, which relieves the rest of us from any obligation to assist them in getting out of the situation.
We Americans revel in our individualism. But we should not allow the rhetoric of personal responsibility to allow us to avoid shared responsibility for our fellow citizens.
Instead of blaming those hurting, Cain should try to figure out how to help. That goes for the rest of us, too.
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