The Democratic Necessity of Risk

Just prior to July 4th, I posted a list of things to admire about the United States. I emphasized the importance of personal freedoms as a cause of celebration in our democracy, but what I neglected to address was the fact that personal freedom is paired with personal responsibility.

This is something you rarely see being addressed in various protests, demands, or indignant speeches broadcast across the air waves. Folks, you can’t have freedom without fully assuming the responsibility that comes with it. Inherent in the definition of freedom is choice, and choice means risk, and risk always involves the possibility of triumph, of loss, or of failure. So that risk and responsibility is entwined in each personal freedom you enjoy or demand.

Alas, we live in a time and in a country where there has been so much success and so much abundance that our leaders have tried to legislate out of existence any chance of failure. Some of these efforts may have been made with good intentions and can provide important temporary lifelines, but we all know about the road to Hell.

Examples of false guarantees of success surround us. Whether it’s the personal self esteem movement that has hijacked any real evaluation of learning and performance in schools or the promise of pensions for life or even three full squares & a wide variety of college prep classes in jail—each of these movements have valid reasoning behind them, but their supporters refuse to acknowledge that society cannot continue to afford the prohibitive costs that accompany such programs. Why should convicted felons have court ordered access to food and classes but law abiding, financially struggling people don’t? And, we’ve certainly all witnessed the reprehensible conduct of our elected representatives who get caught self-dealing who then treat us to a dramatic display of feigned remorse but receive nothing more than a slap on the wrist from their colleagues.

If you risk breaking the law and are subsequently convicted of a felony, theoretically, you have forfeited your right to vote, let alone privileges to educational access, medical care, and personal freedom. Instead, what we now must confront is a society that can no longer afford the policies and laws that have been put in place as part of a misplaced effort to be and to provide all things to all people.

Don’t get me wrong. I believe that as a civilized nation we need to have in place certain safety nets and laws. In order to live as a cohesive group and support those who cannot help themselves, we must trade off certain liberties. I support many of those efforts. And then, there are the unfortunate circumstances that no matter who is at fault, we as a society have to deal with the aftermath, so what is the best way to handle such messes? Those, too, sometimes require social safety nets.

But the Government cannot do it all for us—and even less so if we want to hold onto our personal freedoms. The more we look to Government to provide those safety nets, the more we have a nanny state. By definition, a nanny state gobbles up our personal freedoms by telling us what to do, when to do it, and how. In exchange, we (supposedly) receive more guarantees of a cradle to grave stability from those in charge.

Looking to a nanny state to keep us warm and safe and fed requires an individual to hold an impoverished worldview. At the end of the day, as capable adults, we can do a lot more for ourselves than the government can do for us. As much as Americans might like to be able to provide the very best of everything for everyone, we cannot as a society afford it. Or to do so means that we have to turn over most of our assets to a group of “leaders” who believe they know better than we. How much faith do you have that the Government can tell you how to live your life better than you can do it yourself? And how much freedom and risk are you willing to trade away for the comfort of a (false) belief that they can do it better for you? What happens to you when the Government doesn’t deliver as promised?

Risk has downsides, sure, but it is only through risk that we can test the limits of who we are, what our ingenuity (or desperation) can actually lead to, and the nearly unlimited promise that accompanies taking a chance.

To live a rewarding, fully mature life as an adult in a free nation necessitates that you rise or fall on your own merits and efforts. With personal freedom comes personal responsibility. This country didn’t get so great because the government promised us it would. It became so through the hard won risks, failures and successes of our fellow citizens.

As you go about re-booting your life, think about this freedom/responsibility equation. Your sense of fulfillment and life satisfaction depends on what you do with your life. As much as many people might like to lodge responsibility for their sense of fulfillment (or lack thereof) with outside forces such as family, social expectations, or financial constraints—and they each may play a role, it’s true—at the end of the day, it is you who makes the choice to act or not to act, to change or not to change, to take that risk…or not. Think about this–as much as this topic may apply to nation states, it also applies to how you see and perceive your personal world. You’re free to do as you choose, but there’s always a price.

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2 Responses to “The Democratic Necessity of Risk”

  1. grasshopper Says:

    “To live a rewarding, fully mature life as an adult in a free nation necessitates that you rise or fall on your own merits and efforts.”–this is my favorite line. so true! What a great blog!

  2. Helen Arnold Says:

    So many wonderful lines in this post! I think this is my favorite post so far! As children we were taught about responsibility and the fact that all actions have consequences, but then we seem to forget as we get older.

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