Angel, a nine year old boy in Lanquín, Alta Verapaz, Guatemala. Angel started collecting firewood for sale from the jungle when he was six. He does not attend school. Only a fraction of the local youth population in Lanquín attend school due to a lack of schoolhouses and teachers as well as economic pressure to begin working early in life. Angel’s father also collects firewood for sale.

Born without bootstraps

The idea of personal responsibility carries a lot of clout in the United States. A personal responsibility ethic is attractive and easy to grasp: you are directly responsible for your decisions and your resulting circumstances. This idea has at least two important functions. First, those who find themselves in successful and comfortable situations are the just beneficiaries of their own efforts. Second, those who find themselves in unfavorable circumstances have largely themselves to blame.

The idea that we can change our station in life through a sheer force of will, that we can come up, or pull ourselves up by our bootstraps, is a linchpin in our national mindset. It supports and defines our fierce individualism and our belief in equal opportunity; it casts a certain light of hope, unrealized potential and accountability on our fellow Americans and even the rest of the world.

Competing with a handicap

Let’s say that you’re attending a footrace. Ten runners are organized along a track, getting ready to compete for victory. Each runner, however, is situated at a separate starting point. Some runners are positioned hundreds of feet behind others, and those in back are hardly visible from those in front. The starting gun sounds and the runners take off. A few minutes later, the contestant who started in front crosses the finish line. Do we congratulate the victor? Do we admonish the losers for a lack of determination, dedication or personal agency? Probably we don’t, anyone can see the race was rigged. Furthermore, the runners themselves would probably have a hard time owning their victory or loss.

One of the great limitations of the personal responsibility ethic is that it sidesteps the issue of starting positions and conditioning circumstances. Within the United States a person’s access to the tools that develop their material success and their sense of personal agency vary wildly from one situation to the next. Socioeconomic class largely determines access to education and extracurricular activities; medical, mental health and legal support; even introduction to professional contacts. Family dynamics, on the other hand, largely determine the presence (or lack) of a sense of safety, stability, support, ambition and opportunity.

The Río Dulce in Izabal, Guatemala is both one of the most impoverished regions of the country, and one of the most visited by wealthy vactioners. On the left, a kitesurfer sports a ~$2,000 setup. On the right, indigenous subsistence fisherman go about their daily work in a dugout wooden canoe.

On a global scale the differences in conditioning circumstances are far more dramatic. It would be absurd for someone with access to public education and a viable job market to use their own experience of personal determination and success as a basis for disparaging the personal agency of those without access to similar resources. Pulling yourself up by your bootstraps may seem straightforward enough to those of us with access to resources, but what if you were born without bootstraps?

A secret function of personal responsibility

At first glance the ethic of personal responsibility serves to make us the masters of our own destiny, it seems to grant us total ownership of our personal situation; but personal responsibility hides a different, antithetical function as well: absolution. It absolves us of the responsibility for others’ circumstances, it justifies our turning a cold shoulder to those not “taking control of their lives” and ignores our radically different starting positions.

A modern study conducted by Candace Clark, an American sociologist, found that attitudes toward negative events and circumstances vary wildly between Americans and citizens of other nations. The study presented test subjects with lists of negative events, and asked them to indicate which events were the result of victimization by forces beyond a person’s control and which were the result of negligence or risk taking.

Martha Nussbaum, an American philosopher, summarizes Clark’s findings nicely:

Where it appears that agency makes some difference, [Americans] are unwilling to see any admixture of bad luck. [They] are on the whole less ready than Europeans to judge poverty as bad luck, given the prevalence of the belief that initiative and hard work are important factors in determining economic success. Similarly, Americans have been slow to judge that sexual assault is a “plight”, even if it is clearly a wrongful act against the woman, because they retain attitudes suggesting that the woman “brought it on herself” — by walking alone in a dangerous place, for example.

In addition to the twin judgments of justification and absolution, personal responsibility as an externally facing method of understanding offers us an escape from the frightening reality of an uncontrollable world; it lets us reassign the terror of unfavorable circumstances to a controllable character flaw: the lack of personal agency. In effect, it encourages us to say were I in their position, I would not allow that to happen to me.

The ethic of personal responsibility is a double-edged sword. Applied internally, to one’s own life and circumstances, it creates a healthy sense of agency that allows us to creatively explore our options and pursue our own wellbeing. Applied externally, however, as a tool for judging the efforts and successes of others, the ethic of personal responsibility encourages the dismissal of disquieting unknowns — such as the complexities of uncontrollable circumstances — in favor of reassuring, if false, knowns — such as the personal failings of others.

In short pulling yourself up by your bootstraps is just as much about the bootstraps as it is about the pulling.