9.2.4 Individual Responsibilities to Society

Personal freedom cannot be available to everyone unless people meet their individual responsibilities to the society they live in.

In this book it is argued that freedom of the individual is important, but that it has to be accompanied by responsibilities.  As the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (Appendix 1) states, “everyone has duties to the community”.  This can be considered as an extended implementation of the concept of “samaritanism”, as described by Christopher H. Wellman in Liberalism, Samaritanism, and Political LegitimacyWellman argues that “what ultimately legitimizes a state’s imposition upon your liberty is not merely the services it provides you, but the benefits it provides others” [his emphasis].

An individual’s obligations to society include compliance with its agreed governance, both written and unwritten.  These obligations can be analysed in all five dimensions of power:

●  This book argues, in agreement with Adam Smith, for economic reciprocity: the concept that those who benefit most from an economy should pay the most tax to pay for agreed public goods and services (3.5.1).

●  People should support themselves if possible. Taxpayers are entitled to demand that those who claim publicly-funded benefits are genuinely in need and are not just ‘free-riding’.

●  People should behave with consideration towards others. At a minimum they should exhibit socially-acceptable behaviour – showing respect, courtesy and integrity (4.4.2).

●  The law can protect people against harm inflicted by others. It can only do so if most people voluntarily obey it, so there is a matching obligation upon the legislature to ensure that the law is acceptable to as many people as possible (5.4.3).

●  People mostly have to accept the outcome of the political process (6.8.6), although they can continue to press for change. Governments have a matching obligation to allow people to make their requirements known (6.8.3).

●  Stable governance depends upon individuals not trying to violently overthrow it. Putting pressure on a government to make changes is a necessary part of politics (6.4.2) and is a way of preserving the stability of a society.  If people-power becomes excessively violent though, particularly if it inflicts physical harm on other people, it infringes the rights of others.  There is a difficult balance to be struck.  Refusal to negotiate is the subject of a later section (9.6).

These obligations, whilst they might appear to be constraints on personal freedom, are necessary to guarantee the freedom of others and to underpin the well-being of society as a whole.  The chaos that results from failure to comply with agreed governance results in the lack of everyone’s freedom to live as they choose, so it is rational to agree not to completely overthrow the current system of governance (2.3.2), even when expressing opposition to it.  Revolutions ( and complete breakdowns in law and order (7.2.6) harm many people.

Freedom isn’t only the license to do what one wants.  Freedom for the disadvantaged members of society depends upon them having sufficient means to live with dignity and to have a chance of competing fairly to gain a better standard of living, so wealth has to be adequately shared (6.7.2).  And freedom for the successful to retain their earnings depends upon the State restricting itself to the minimum scope necessary to grant a fair opportunity to the less successful (9.2.2).  A society which fails to be fair to both rich and poor will eventually tear itself apart, as history has repeatedly shown; the French and Russian Revolutions are obvious examples.


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This page is intended to form part of Edition 4 of the Patterns of Power series of books.  An archived copy of it is held at https://www.patternsofpower.org/edition04/924.htm.