Edited by Ugo Mattei and John D. Haskell
Chapter 15: Personal responsibility for systemic inequality
‘Equality ha[s] come and gone as a social idea with traction, even among liberal intellectuals,’ concludes the American historian Daniel T. Rodgers. In this chapter I argue that equality’s undoing follows from an economic ideology of law that grounds justice in an illusory divide between individual agency and collective support. If equality means gaining from government protection rather than from individual production, then equality will appear to come at the cost of responsible action. This conceptual bind operates through two strands of personal responsibility arguments. The first, perhaps more familiar, version legitimates inequality by attributing it to individual failure. In recent global austerity politics, a second theory of personal responsibility legitimates inequality and insecurity even while attributing these harms to systemic failures far beyond individual control. Welfare reform efforts in the United States embraced the first strand of argument in the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act of 1996. A prominent rationale for that legislation was that the former national welfare program of income support for impoverished single mothers caused more women to become impoverished single mothers, in a cycle of dependency or moral hazard that effectively rewarded women for bearing and raising children without an employed husband or without sufficient earnings of their own. The reform legislation increased penalties and benefit restrictions in order to induce impoverished parents to seek wage work or marriage or to delay or forgo bearing (or raising) children.
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