Summary of The Age of Responsibility

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The Age of Responsibility book summary

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In the 1960s, US president Lyndon Johnson declared an all-out war on poverty, in the spirit of the then-prevailing view that helping others was a moral obligation. In the 1980s, President Ronald Reagan pivoted the notion of responsibility to mean personal accountability. In the 1990s, European and American politicians promised to “end welfare as we know it.” Society now seeks to help only those it deems deserving. But has this punitive approach to welfare gone too far? Does society focus too much on recipients’ past mistakes? Harvard lecturer Yascha Mounk’s examination of the “age of responsibility” is a challenging intellectual journey, and getAbstract recommends it to anyone interested in economics and a just society. While his academic, slightly convoluted style may cause readers to feel like struggling undergraduates sometimes, Mounk makes convincing points about the negative consequences of requiring the poor and unemployed to bear the guilt and burden of their situation. Mounk opposes the idea that government should treat people differently if they’ve caused their own plight. He issues a worthy warning against the direction the United States and other countries are taking. He reminds readers of past wisdom rather than attempting a hands-down victory by persuasion. You’ll learn a lot from his history of the philosophy of government welfare, and it lends context to the reasons society has become slightly less compassionate toward the unemployed. Mounk’s text offers a substantial counterweight to the simplistic, cure-all approaches and underfunded, clumsy bureaucracies that risk making America a harsh place to make mistakes or simply be unlucky.

About the Author

Yascha Mounk is a lecturer on political theory at Harvard University’s Government Department and a postdoctoral fellow at the German Marshall Fund’s Transatlantic Academy. He also wrote The People vs. Democracy: Why Our Freedom Is in Danger and How to Save It.


The Age of Responsibility

Like many concepts in economics and politics, the meaning of personal responsibility underwent a distinct change from the 1960s to the 1980s. In the political landscape, the connotation of the word “responsibility” morphed from referring to society’s duty to help others to signifying a personal onus to make the right choices, to look after yourself and to avoid being a drain on your fellow citizens. This imperative of individual responsibility was a necessary, natural partner of the broader sociopolitical shift from a mixed economy to one that relies on market forces. Revitalizing the economy necessitated that transformation.

Republican politicians in America quickly realized that taxpayers responded well to the new rhetoric about responsibility and used those ideas to reduce welfare spending. Then, surprisingly, Democrats started echoing them. At his 1993 inauguration, President Bill Clinton said, “We must do what America does best: offer more opportunity to all and demand responsibility from all.”

The Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act of the 1990s was a practical culmination of the reinterpretation...

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