Bill Clinton
Credit: U.S. Department of Agriculture

Yascha Mounk surged into public view last year with the release of his research suggesting an alarming loss of support for democracy in the West, especially among young people. Since then, he has become a prominent voice in the debate about the seriousness of populist and authoritarian threats to liberal democratic governments worldwide. But Mounk, who recently received his PhD from Harvard’s Department of Government, was trained more as a political theorist than an empirical researcher, and his new book, The Age of Responsibility, reflects this background.

The Age of
Luck, Choice, and
the Welfare State
by Yascha Mounk
Harvard University Press, 288 pp. Credit:

In the postwar decades, Mounk says, there was a broad consensus that many of the obligations the state owed its citizens were largely independent of the choices these citizens made—even if the choices explained why these citizens needed public help in the first place. Today, however, a majority of the population thinks that assistance should be conditioned on “responsible” behavior—a view Mounk regards as “deeply punitive.” Many Americans now endorse the sentiment that, like Benjamin Franklin’s God, the modern welfare state should help those who help themselves, not those who don’t.

The shift toward personal responsibility may have begun with the 1970s conservative revolt that swept Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan into power, Mounk observes, but it soon became the lingua franca among reform-minded center-left politicians as well. Bill Clinton took the lead, developing a New Democratic framework that he summarized in his first inaugural address. “We must do what America does best,” he declared: “offer more opportunity to all and demand more responsibility from all. It is time to break the bad habit of expecting something for nothing from our government or from each other.”

Tony Blair’s senior aides were there, literally taking notes that found their way into the future prime minister’s speeches and manifestos. (Full disclosure: I was there too. Before serving as deputy assistant for domestic policy under Clinton, I spent much of the previous four years working with a small band of like-minded Democratic dissidents to create the concepts and policies Clinton took with him into the White House—including the idea of personal responsibility Mounk so relentlessly criticizes.)

Although Mounk has little patience for Clinton, Blair, and other Third Way thinkers of the time, he also rejects the progressive left’s response to their centrist deviationism. Tacitly granting the moral relevance of personal responsibility, the left instead denied its empirical reality and ended up contending that individuals are responsible for almost none of the outcomes we usually ascribe to them. This claim is not only philosophically flawed, Mounk argues, but also politically unsustainable. Average voters may be willing to acknowledge that whether we are born rich or poor—with all the attendant advantages and disadvantages—is a matter of luck. But when it comes to the willingness or unwillingness to work hard and play by the rules, these voters draw the line. Besides, denying that the poor and disadvantaged have effective agency subtly moves their putative defenders down the road to an ill-disguised contempt. “To think of our co-citizens as incapable of taking responsibility for themselves,” Mounk rightly says, “is to think of them as having inferior status.”

Mounk builds much of his case on the terrain of philosophy rather than of policy or public opinion. He begins with the standard (and correct) view that John Rawls, the leading liberal philosopher of our era, explicitly excluded responsibility, desert, and other “pre-political” moral concepts from his account of social justice. But Mounk notices what many have overlooked: Rawls’s contractarian understanding of society enabled him to retrieve through the back door much of what he had expelled through the front. If human association rests on mutual advantage, if justice reflects fair terms of social cooperation, then the parties to the contract have “legitimate expectations” of one another, as individuals. From there it is but a small step to the legitimacy of conditional social policy.

There is a parallel path to the same result. Rawls wrote in explicit opposition to utilitarianism. But, as Mounk observes, utilitarianism embodies an expansive understanding of our responsibility for others. The metric of right utilitarian action is the well-being of everyone—as the preamble to our constitution puts it, the “general welfare.” The question is not whether individuals have acted in a way that merits our regard; it is whether we can act in a way that benefits these individuals now and for the future, regardless of what they have done in the past. It is no accident that utilitarian thinkers have pioneered non-punitive, rehabilitative approaches to criminal justice. Nor is it an accident that the dominance of utilitarianism coincided with the rise of the version of the welfare state that embodied the principle of social rather than personal responsibility.

Though provocative, these arguments have yet to address the key question: What’s wrong with personal responsibility and with social policies that reflect it? We have already encountered Mounk’s first stab at an answer: it’s “punitive.” But is it? Many welfare reformers of the 1980s and ’90s were convinced that the existing system demeaned its beneficiaries and prevented them from taking advantage of opportunities to improve their circumstances. They believed that policies coupling greater access to housing support, health insurance, child care, and job training with higher expectations of labor force participation would work to the advantage of beneficiaries and their dependents. And although the empirical debate is never-ending, it is not evident that these reformers were wrong, at least in the United States.

These considerations bear also on Mounk’s second objection to personal responsibility–based social policy: the background conditions needed to make such policy morally acceptable are infeasible in practice. Once the appeal to personal responsibility is translated into what he terms the “cold bureaucratic logic of the welfare state,” individuals will end up deprived of urgently needed help for no compelling reason. The practical choice, then, is between employing crude conceptions of responsibility that do real damage to real people and not invoking responsibility in making social decisions about who gets what, when, and how.

Or so Mounk claims. The question is whether he is right, and this is not an issue that arm-chair reflection on social policy can settle. To be sure, all laws, regulations, and even handbooks are blunt instruments, never wholly adequate to the granularity of the world. We must make all-things-considered determinations and then leaven them as best we can with judgment and equity in particular cases. It is not clear that the imperfect use of responsibility-based policies leaves individuals or society worse off.

Mounk’s deepest objection to responsibility-based social policy is that responsibility is irrelevant to the welfare state, rightly understood. Instead of working from the bottom up, starting with personal responsibility and drawing inferences for political institutions, he says, we should work from the top down, starting with the purposes of our institutions and designing policies to promote them. The primary purpose of the welfare state is not to make people’s material entitlements track their moral desert, Mounk insists; it is, rather, to ensure the equal standing of all citizens, to give people some assurance that they will have what they need to live lives of “simple dignity,” and to promote broad social goods such as economic growth and public health.

As a historical proposition, Mounk’s thesis is more than defensible. But he needs more than history to clinch his case. As he acknowledges, numerous purposes can shape political institutions. The welfare state as we know it moves some of these purposes into the foreground while ignoring others. After World War II, a Labour government in the UK adopted William Beveridge’s proposals for an inclusive welfare state, which sociologist T. H. Marshall defended as rights of social citizenship that had nothing to do with individual merit or responsibility but applied to all citizens. A generation later, U.S. social reformers in the administrations of John F. Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson expanded the welfare state to redress the long-neglected needs of African Americans and the poor, giving rise to the principle of “welfare rights.”

These were political choices made at a particular moment in time, and there is no way of freezing them permanently or immunizing them from subsequent contestation. Democratic citizens are free to determine whether they want all, some, or none of our material entitlements to track their preferred conception of moral desert. They are free to decide for themselves whether “pre-political” understandings of moral worth or, for that matter, “common-sense morality” are rightfully applied to public matters.

As it happens, democratic publics have rejected what they regard as the false choice between the expansive welfare-state understanding of responsibility as responsibility for others and the conservative understanding as responsibility for oneself. They have embraced, instead, a conception of responsibility as reciprocity: everyone pitches in to support decent institutions and policies, and everyone benefits from the commonwealth that is collectively created. Contributions to the public and benefits from the public go together.

But not completely, of course. Citizens understand that although not everyone is able to contribute, everyone is entitled to at least the basics. Individuals may be congenitally deprived of the capacity to contribute to society, or even care for themselves; or they may lose these capacities through war or accident. This does not mean that they should be shoved onto ice floes and cast adrift. Others may act in ways that harm society and that society deems worthy of punishment through deprivation of liberty or, in extreme cases, life itself. This does not mean that prisoners may be deprived of food, clothing, shelter, or medical care—not even prisoners on death row. There are some things that we are entitled to unconditionally, as fellow citizens or as human beings, regardless of what we do. In this area, considerations of individual desert or merit do not apply.

These are the issues that democratic peoples have reconsidered in recent decades, with results that Mounk deplores. He does not think that responsibility-as-reciprocity is consistent with the expansive welfare state he prizes, and he may be right. He deeply believes that his fellow citizens have made a mistake, and perhaps they have.

But invoking the shade of William Beveridge will not be enough to convince them. Mounk must persuade democratic citizens to disregard their own moral intuitions about the importance of contributing to society, if individuals are able, as one important basis for benefiting from society. This will not be easy.

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William A. Galston is a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution.