The two words no politician can ever say

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Brace yourselves, because I'm about to write the two most toxic, dangerous, and politically suicidal words any candidate or already-elected official can say:

"Personal responsibility."

It seems like all the candidates from both parties for all higher office in America today are preaching an extreme populist message that can be summarized by simply saying: "it's someone else's fault." Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump excel at this message, but Hillary Clinton and the other candidates engage in it too. And no one is coming even close to extolling a message of self-determination. It's one thing to correctly say the American people are angry, it's another to fail to recognize the candidates themselves are making us angrier at each other. Trump blames illegal immigrants, "bad deals," and a laundry list of other targets for our economic problems. Sanders doesn't seem to be physically able to utter a sentence without blaming Wall Street for something. Mrs. Clinton likes to blame "greedy Republicans" with regularity. This practice is all the rage.

Of course, kings, dictators, and even democratically elected governments have never had much to gain by promoting personal responsibility, especially when big promises of "protection" not only earn them support but hand them more legal power. Of course, kings, dictators, and even democratically elected governments routinely fail to deliver on those promises, because no one can provide another person or group of people real happiness or real success at any level. But no ambitious and power-hungry politician can really succeed if too many people realize they're really responsible for themselves. This is how government and personal responsibility have been at an impasse from time immemorial.

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But this isn't really a column dedicated to political or philosophical theory. As valuable as those discussions are, it's more helpful to examine three important issues where the government is essentially working against the interest of personal responsibility simply because doing so serves the politicians and the politicians alone.


Healthcare is the mother of all cases where political opportunism and personal responsibility collide. Most of us want, and all of us need, good healthcare from doctors and other professionals. But most of us are also willing to do at least a minimum to promote or maintain our own healthcare by eating somewhat well, not smoking, or drinking to excess, etc.

But what about the people who don't? That's an important question at a time when our government is paying for more and more of almost everyone's health coverage. I'm not talking about the people who are sadly born to or contract diseases through no actions of their own, but the people who are personally responsible for their own costly healthcare because of irresponsible and even reckless behavior. Sure, we're all in favor of some nameless rich guy paying more in taxes to cover the costs of a child's cancer surgery. But what about the lower middle class working stiff who eats right and exercises having to pay more in taxes to cover the guy next to him on the bus who needs a heart bypass because he ate three cheeseburgers with supersized fries every day for 10 years? When that happens, you have a breakdown in the system that is not sustainable.

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If you think the above scenario is outlandish, it isn't. Consider the U.K. and its single payer National Health Service that the British and all single payer advocates are so proud of. A report issued by the decidedly not conservative Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development late last year said the U.K. now has one of the worst healthcare systems in the developed world. A number of reasons were given, but the report focused on the severe spike in dangerous levels of obesity, smoking, and alcoholism related health problems. Concerned citizens in Great Britain routinely complain about how bad the public drunkenness problem has become. And anyone who's visited London is probably used to the larger number of smokers you'll see in and out of doors. What is surprisingly is probably the obesity problem, which the international news media has done a good job of convincing all of us is a uniquely American problem. The results have been ruinous for the NHS, with its costs for obesity and smoking related heart attacks spiraling out of control.

None of this should be surprising from a personal responsibility standpoint. People in any society that are told they don't have to cover their own healthcare costs out of pocket are logically less likely to take good personal care of themselves. Before you jump out of your seat and scream that America's non-socialized medicine system deals with an even worse obesity and heart disease problem, remember that the U.S. government is actually already the largest single payer healthcare provider in the world because of Medicare and Medicaid. We are almost as guilty at promoting as little personal financial responsibility on healthcare as Britain, Canada, or any Scandinavian country.

The solution is simple: promote more personal responsibility. If we would just concentrate on providing government subsidized healthcare to those who truly can't afford it or get it, the medical industry could provide much better healthcare to everyone. As it is, our system is just too taxed with too many people "entitled" to all forms of healthcare. And I do very much mean to use the word "healthcare" and not health insurance. Because healthcare and health insurance are two very different things, as the folks who are facing massive Obamacare deductible costs are finding out the hard way. If we got the message out there that more of us would have to directly cover their own healthcare costs, we would have the double benefit of seeing more healthy behaviors from the more responsible among us while not straddling them with the costs of the irresponsible. Meanwhile, the basic human right to do what you want with your life would be preserved simply by not making the rest of us literally pay for it.

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But that's not what's going to happen. In this political environment, woe to the candidate who even comes close to suggesting people who can afford it should be entirely responsible for their own healthcare. It's much more likely the governments in Britain and the U.S. will use the enduring obesity and smoking problems to seize more power. They will impose more "sin taxes" on everything from soft drinks to hamburgers. After that, we may see outright rationing or banning of those products especially in Europe. Then, there will always still be other irresponsible behaviors driving up everyone's health costs. It could be motorcycling, snowboarding, getting a tattoo, or swimming fewer than 45 minutes after eating a tuna sandwich that come under a stricter taxation or rationing/banning regime. Good healthcare is a commodity and thus, there will always be enough demand to drive its costs up. And some people will always be able to blame others for driving up the cost more than their "fair share." This continues in an endless loop. The result is that healthcare continues to deteriorate in quality, like it has in the U.K. and the U.S. in recent years. But that won't stop the government from taking away more and and more freedoms in order to cut costs. Government protection, especially in healthcare, often results in no protection at all. Ironically, candidates too afraid to tell the truth to the public about how their healthcare fate is largely in their own hands seem to have no fear of taking everything else away from them.

Food Stamps

Food stamps and nutritional aid for Americans in need and healthcare are obviously closely related. And the quest to eradicate hunger is basically the longest-running charity campaign in human history. But here too, politicians have trashed even hinting at promoting more personal responsibility in favor of promising all things to all people. For example, the journalists and activists who have shown that living on food stamps alone isn't enough to get adequate nutrition are 100% right. But most people on food stamps have other sources of income. That leaves the poorest people without enough to eat while millions of people making some income get the same aid. When he was governor of California, Ronald Reagan seized on this injustice and advocated giving the "poor a raise" and paying for it by reducing the overall welfare rolls that were bloated with a decent percentage of people who needed a nudge to take more responsibility for themselves. That program worked in California, but our current government leaders believe more political capital can be gained by promising at least some help to the biggest possible amount of people. Promoting personal responsibility by imposing time limits and/or lower income requirements for food stamps might as well be an idea from Mars. The result is the poorest lose out as more and more marginally struggling people are encouraged to grab the aid and the welfare state eventually goes bankrupt anyway. Political gimmicks meant to gain ephemeral electoral victories tend to backfire that way.


Perhaps the biggest way politicians steal from the poor in order to repay their political allies is in public education. And here too, the ruinous policies that hurt the poorest among us are all promoted in opposition to anything that resembles encouraging personal responsibility or self determination. Most political leaders in large urban centers and blue states insist that union and government controlled schooling is the only way to protect the public's right to an education. Vouchers for private school tuition are blocked or severely rationed, charter schools are blocked or severely rationed, testing and other assessments for teachers and curricula are attacked and gutted. I don't think anyone can even imagine a politician from either party insisting that parents take much more personal responsibility for their children's education. And the result is just as disastrous as the supposedly "no cost" healthcare and food stamp programs.

The Good Old Days

But you don't have to go too far back in history to find a time when one successful politician actually gained political capital by at least talking about personal responsibility. Top Bill Clinton strategist Doug Schoen encouraged then-Governor Clinton to promote the idea and even utter the words "personal responsibility" frequently in his winning 1992 presidential campaign. It worked then and again in 1996 as part of the overall triangulation strategy that attracted moderate voters, brought several Reagan Democrats back home, and did not turn off the party's most liberal base. The Clinton administration even named its 1996 landmark welfare reform deal with the Republican Congress the "Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Act." Sadly, after the Monica Lewinsky scandal broke in early 1998 it became impossible for President Clinton to keep talking about almost anything with the word "responsibility" connected to it. And President Obama promptly gutted much of that welfare reform law early in his first term. Perhaps the idea of any government leader truly embracing the idea of asking the voters to play more of a role in their economic and medical futures was a stretch at any time. But the messages from the White House and Washington on this issue during mid 1990's were encouraging, and it's depressingly fitting that Mr. Clinton's personal irresponsibility doomed any further discussion of personal responsibility.

Now, the leading candidates from all sides are squarely planted as far away from an individual responsibility message as anyone could imagine. Each rally, TV ad, and social media posting is straight out of the "blame everyone else" factory. And no matter who wins in November, we lose.

Commentary by Jake Novak, supervising producer of "Power Lunch." Follow him on Twitter @jakejakeny.