Fleeing From Responsibility

06/17/2015 06:12 am ET | Updated Jun 17, 2016

Defense Department civilian and military personnel will no longer be able to use their government charge cards to pay for gaming and topless entertainment, if an amendment to the DOD spending bill recently passed by the House makes it into law. Read that sentence again. What's wrong here?

Let's start with the fact that some people who work for Uncle Sam are using government-issued credit cards to pay for personal, totally inappropriate charges (for those on government business travel). While it's true that most end up paying out of their own pockets for these non-government expenditures, it apparently did not occur to them that the initial charges were done using a taxpayer-provided vehicle meant for use while working, not for the purpose of watching nude entertainers.

Let's now add the fact that it apparently takes an act of Congress to signal that this is wrong and provide a legal basis to go after these abusers of the public's trust. Their agencies apparently lack the authority to do so, as it would seem do their immediate superiors. Congress, some feel, has more important things to do than legislate what ought to be obvious behavior. But, as they say, here we are.

Going still further, in a demonstration of interest-group politics at work, the American Gaming Association opposed an earlier version of the amendment, which would have banned the use of government charge cards for any purchases at casinos saying, reasonably, that meals and rooms at their casinos are legitimate expenses for someone on government travel. Congress dutifully revised the initial amendment. Apparently, it never occurred to the American Gaming Association that they could ask casino operators to just refuse the cards for betting and adult entertainment purchases, but they choose to leave that to someone else.

The Association of Club Executives (ACE), which represents the strip club industry (everyone in America has a lobbyist) argued that no action at all by Congress is called for. "We trust the people who serve our country to exercise the Constitutional rights of freedom and privacy they work so hard to protect," it said, thus seeking to transform an abuse of a government program into a Constitutionally-protected freedom. But the ACE did not stop there. "We also respect their right to pursue a moment of happiness in the type of entertainment they choose, whether it's a martini a good cigar, bearing arms or bare arms," it opined. In short, the pursuit of happiness is the predominate value here. Thomas Jefferson is no doubt rolling over in his grave at what has happened to his immortal words

What is missing from everyone who has weighed in on this issue is the fact that government workers, their leaders, casino operators, and gaming and club associations could have all avoided this waste of Congressional time if they had assumed personal responsibility for right behavior. When it takes a law to stop a practice that should, on its surface, scream of irresponsibility, those involved have somehow lost a portion of their moral compass.

This may seem a rather trivial misbehavior to make all this fuss about, and it would be if it was rare. Yet, it is instead another example of the "canary in the coal mine." Many in America have gotten very good at evading, denying or being blind to their responsibility for actions they either should not have done or could have stopped.

A few more examples help illustrate the point. Clothing chains and big box stores keep their prices low by burying their heads in the sand about the atrocious wages and deadly working conditions in the Third World countries from which they get their merchandise. Car manufacturers hide safety problems calculating that the costs of lawsuits will be less than the cost of fixing the problem. Financial firms agree to pay fines without any necessity that their executives acknowledge blame. The Alford Plea allows defendants to plead guilty yet still proclaim their innocence. Parents blame teachers for their children's inability to learn; teachers blame parents; and the children themselves are thus taught that their poor learning is always someone else's fault.

Where personal responsibility is lacking, personal failure often follows, whether at home, at work, in school, or on a government trip. When the law must be called upon to fill the gap, society signals that you can do what you want until we try to stop you. This renders thinking about personal responsibility optional at best and unnecessary at worst. The result is a nation with too many laws and jails full of wrong-doers.

Government workers, business leaders, financial titans and everyday citizens increasingly shout to politicians to "get off my back." Yet those politicians are often there because responsibility is not.