The American Ethos of Personal Responsibility Is Failing Us

Amid a coronavirus pandemic, Americans are crowding bars and packing beaches. They're only a symptom of a much larger problem.
Collage by Hunter French | Images via Getty and Shutterstock

At a press conference on Saturday, White House coronavirus response coordinator Deborah Birx hinted at a growing body of scientific evidence indicating that many of the people who were spreading the deadly coronavirus showed no symptoms themselves. Considering that new information, she made a desperate plea to the nation.

“We’re asking every American to take personal responsibility to prevent that spread,” Birx said.


Like many other officials, Birx was leaning on the hope that Americans would do the right thing: wash their hands, avoid touching their face, stay inside, and otherwise distance themselves from those they love. There was no longer any chance of containing the virus, but if all 300 million-plus of us voluntarily took steps to do our part to help out, the country had a chance to stem the tide enough to avoid completely overwhelming the health care system.

That same day, people all over the country proved entirely unwilling to do so. Bars and restaurants in cities including Boston, New York, and Nashville were jam-packed with people who refused to abide by government officials’ request to hunker down at home and fight the contagion. “I’m not about to put my life on hold because this is going around,” Kyle Thomas, a nurse, told The Chicago Sun-Times as he waited to get into a bar to celebrate St. Patrick’s Day in Chicago. Another defiant American, former Ms. Nevada winner Katie Williams, replied to Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s request for people to go home with a declaration.

“I just went to a crowded Red Robin and I'm 30,” Williams wrote. “It was delicious, and I took my sweet time eating my meal. Because this is America. And I'll do what I want.”

Inevitably, the hashtag #CoronaKatie started to trend as people raged over Williams’ unwillingness to consider the health of the people around her. But the anger was misplaced. Williams and the other Americans who proved unwilling to put their weekend plans on hold were simply the faces of a flawed government strategy to combat coronavirus—one that was created in line with the American ethos of personal responsibility, a belief system that has dominated political discourse on both sides of the aisle over the last three decades, and is now failing us in one of the most critical points of our history.


In 1968, then-California governor Ronald Reagan uttered a line ahead of the Republican convention that would become something akin to conservative lore. “It is time to restore the American precept that each individual is accountable for his actions,” Reagan said. Twenty-five years later, Bill Clinton urged Americans at his inauguration to “all take more responsibility not only for ourselves and our families but for our communities and our country.” In the intervening decades, the idea that the primary onus of responsibility fell to the individual, rather than the government or society writ large, infused itself into the American belief system. Individualism had long been a force in American politics—former president Herbert Hoover called it “the primary force of American civilization for three centuries” almost a century ago—but “personal responsibility” took it a step further, dividing our society into hundreds of millions of individuals.

Personal responsibility was the force that helped the rich tell themselves poverty was the fault of the poor. As the Washington Post pointed out a few years back, “It is no coincidence, for example, that the greatest overhaul of the U.S. welfare state, which Clinton signed into law with bipartisan support in 1996, was called the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act.” It also helped fortify a Greed Is Good society, which manifested itself among broad swathes of the public as a selfish and self-interested collection of people.


American optimists have come to believe that in moments of crisis, we will find our best, most altruistic selves. The eternally optimistic Ken Burns likes to cite an Abraham Lincoln quote, in which Lincoln argued before the start of the U.S. Civil War that the country would abide by its “better angels” in moments of national pain. But as the coronavirus makes its way into and through our cities and homes, putting our loved ones at risk, the American ethos of personal responsibility has been shown to be an insufficient rallying cry. Yes, #CoronaKatie’s comments were naive. As were California Rep. Devin Nunes’, when he told healthy people to go to restaurants and bars. But the issue at hand is that the country should not have left the choice up to the individual. Because there will always be idiots.

If there’s a larger lesson in China and South Korea’s successful responses to the coronavirus, it is that there are times when governments must step in and exert their power. The people who went to bars allowed us to feel a sense of superiority, but they also made it clear that the country will not be able to wash their hands and not touch their faces out of this crisis. Widespread mobilization doesn’t necessitate Chinese authoritarianism, but it does sometimes require hard rules. On Tuesday, Slate’s Dan Check looked at ridership on the New York City, now the epicenter of the country’s coronavirus crisis, and found it was down only 33 percent as of last Friday. “As impressive as voluntary measures reducing ridership by one-third in a single week is, that level of reduction in ridership is not enough to stop the spread of the coronavirus,” Check wrote.

President Donald Trump is still hoping the country will adhere to its better angels. On Monday, he requested that Americans avoid groups of 10 or more. “We’re appealing to all Americans to take these steps to protect each other and to ensure that the virus doesn’t spread,” Trump said. “They will only work if every American takes this together to heart and responds as one nation and one people to stop the spread of this virus.” The same day, footage emerged of a packed beach in Florida, where people were doing the exact opposite.

No matter how much compassion Americans hold in their hearts, hope for collective voluntary action has been proven insufficient. As the coronavirus crisis has persisted, some areas of the U.S. government have begun to wake up to the limits of personal responsibility. States including Illinois, North Carolina, Ohio, and New York have ordered the temporary closure of all bars and restaurants, outside of takeout and delivery. Entire school districts have been closed. San Francisco has placed the city on lockdown. The time for politely asking for people to do the right thing has passed.

Last Thursday, as New York grappled with an oncoming crisis and told us to stay home, I went out to dinner at a restaurant. One day before, the World Health Organization had declared coronavirus a worldwide pandemic, the NBA had suspended its season, and panic had started to set in across the country. I was panicked too, and I made the wrong choice anyway. I can’t justify it. In truth, it was a decision an idiot like me should not have been left to make.

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