Editorial – Pay Your Bills and Pay Your Dues                              Summer 2004, archive


I got into all of this sociological debate through the issue of gays in the military and the notorious “don’t ask don’t tell” policy. That issue, affecting directly a relatively small number of people, became a fulcrum for debating almost everything else dealing with the balance of individual liberty and social responsibility.


I also became concerned about social justice policy in the 1990s as a reaction to a catastrophic setback (ironically as a civilian) in my college days, before my own military service. I have lived my adult life safely enough as a kind of alien, different, an outlier—sheltered from real responsibility but compelled to enjoy my dangerous difference. The debate over the military ban made me realize that gay men and lesbians could have both equal rights and equal responsibilities with everyone else. I felt motivated by the stories of young men who had fought the ban—had I actually “loved” one of them personally, I would have fought for his equal rights to use his own gifts while making his own private choices according to his own values.


The rights-v-responsibilities axis seemed to extend to everything else—in issues ranging from national security, financial stability, health care, to free speech and censorship, even to previously unimagined conflicts of rights posed by the Internet. It seemed social justice could be achieved by allowing and expecting everyone to account for the self. Leftist calls to solve social problems by wealth redistribution could by answered by remembering that there are always people who succeed even against adversity, and that people in trouble nearly always have some accountability for their problems. That seemed to imply that one would get in life what one earned, what one deserved, by performance—that observation implied a simple model for social justice.  Meritocracy provides that when one person has an opportunity and fails, the wand passes to someone else, and that “rite of passage” test in its own logic promotes justice; so, we stop whining about the Republicans, George W. Bush, and the upper end tax cuts! Performance on the job and, for younger people, academic performance ought to mean something as to future station in life. Of course, “tough love” – under the guise of liberty-- can turn mean and, in excess, take society in some unintended and dangerous directions almost suggesting fascism. After all, some people start ahead in line. External threats to common freedom, whether from enemies (terrorists), disease, environment and even demographic shifts must be met. And many people really do bear incredible burdens in caring for others, whether because of disability, poverty, illness, or other causes. And, although human beings have the ability to define themselves conceptually, many people still depend on a common social basis to achieve meaning relative to others, and that social basis (“solidarity” and foundations like marriage) can unravel under the pressures of extreme individualism.  While highly original goals can often best be achieved by individuals acting on their own (with “asymmetry”), social and economic stability and the ability to deal with external threats sometimes depend on individuals relinquishing some of their own goals for the good of groups (such as families) with which they must codepend.   Freedom must not be taken for granted—so ideas like patriotism and family values really matter.


So I still believe in a model centered around personal responsibility, but it must go beyond the original libertarian model of individual contract. People must also show that they can take responsibility for others and contribute to common community or national service efforts. One must not just pay one’s bills; one must also pay one’s dues. In the past, when we had a military draft, we struggled with ideas like this, because we knew that persons (however talented and worthy for their own gifts) excused from it were leaving others to sacrifice for them. One can also extend this kind of thinking to all kinds of questions about safety and regimentation, about how dirty work that we still depend on gets done. Extended notions of personal responsibility involve socialization, and ability to adapt organically to meeting the needs of others. In the workplace, this means proving one can take one’s turn with the graveyard shifts, the on-call duties, that one has really learned to “work” and concentrate without mistakes and balance the register at the end of the day.  Becoming marginalized in the professional workplace and having to deal with uniforms and time-clock punches can be sobering. (Someone like me may have resisted learning these regimentation skills as superfluous and humiliating, the way some disadvantaged students resist learning to do multiplication and long division in an era that offers computers and graphing calculations—but only most of the time.) But extended personal responsibility also leads to discussions about family responsibility, which has almost disappeared as a legal issue for single adults or adults who choose not to have children. Gay marriage and gay adoption become relevant issues then, as does eldercare. But so do activities that go beyond the family (community service, national service or military service). An intended consequence of service is giving value to other people who have fewer opportunities to experience their own worth through their own performance as the competitive capitalist world usually views it. Helping people in this regard often requires going to bat for them aggressively and dismantling some personal intellectual objectivity, which for many people seems like a luxury (and this observation certainly comports with a procreative view of “family values.”) “Extended personal responsibility” would help reduce the gap between undeserved rich and undeserved poor, without too much government.  It would seem to become a necessary cofactor for the right to pursue your own happiness. Imagine, if you will, that private companies could give people “citizenship scores[1] the way they give “credit scores.”  At least it’s good science fiction.


This sounds a bit like the New Testament “rich young ruler” (or perhaps “brother’s keeper”) problem. It’s often more comfortable to look at social justice problems as traditional contests between groups rather than in terms of individual accountability and authentication.  Today, the gap between the rich and poor, within our own society, relates more to vast differences in ability among individuals relative to aggregate differences between classes or groups than in past generations; it is easier to blame individual failure upon personal inability to compete.  Today, more and any time in the past, there is a danger that those who “fail” competitively and who do not belong to families will just be left (“eliminated”) to die.  At the same time, there is a great deal of cheating and a great deal of resentment that some people gain by exploiting others, and some indignant determination by external forces to stop this kind of personal “success.” People tend to take sides on issues based on how they (and their families or immediate social groups) are affected, and tend to be susceptible to political slogans and calls for money. People need to learn to think objectively and understand how others think about issues. That kind of Socratic thinking is encouraged in a good liberal education—but it gets lost in our weaker academic performance as a nation, as well as in the short term focus of modern markets in the workplace. I want to help restore the interest in this kind of examination, with a variety of media products or initiatives. 


When individuals are able to carry out their responsibilities in this sense, they still should feel free to design and execute their own goals without excessive amounts of socialization to make their values and personal goals conform to those of others who need them. You might call this “Pay It Forward,” as in the 2000 film. It gets sticky here. I certainly leave something to be desired in my own track record of “paying my dues,” and others sometimes talk as if I owe them loyalty in return for some sense of comfort. I may have a good message but be the wrong messenger. But this really gets heavy. The commonly recommended solution to difficulties, especially in church,  is to learn to identify with new needs in others and give up critical thinking for an exercise in faith. In fact an unwillingness to do so is seen as a lack of faith. I hope not to have to go down that far. I am reminded of the way one sets limits in a Smallville episode where Clark Kent, his powers temporarily disabled by a solar flare, really risks his life to save the life of a drunken journalist who has tried to make him “tell.” In the last scene, the journalist calls him a rare “good person” because he helps people without expecting anything in return. But Clark does his chores and pays his dues. He can help others without compromising his own goals and intentions. He relishes his powers.  But I am left with my own refusal or inability to change, like the character Ephram in Everwood.


The far Left believes that the “privileged classes” are parasites upon “workers,” and, in the spirit of supposed egalitarianism, Red China’s Chairman Mao took this thinking to its logical extreme with the 1960s “cultural revolution” that sent intellectuals to become peasants in the countryside, all in the abstract goal of “justice.” The extreme right believes that everyone must “pay his dues” to prove his fitness to live. The libertarian believes in a rationalist’s model of “rational selfishness and ethical hedonism.” But, to be logical, one must admit that some sort of “dues paying” is necessary to buttress individual liberty in a world where stability and freedom from hardship cannot be taken for granted, and where effort must be expended to show basic value for human life (and perhaps to satisfy the demands of faith). One could say that current economic turmoil in a global economy is forcing a “free market cultural revolution” on many previously sheltered professionals. Sometimes, though, even free people use their liberty to measure others.


Conservatives, after all, believe that social justice is achieved by holding individuals accountable for their results and for sharing wealth and expressive purposes through the traditional family and church or community (with little government intervention), rather than by redistributing wealth through groups based on perceived aggregate needs. So “pay your dues” becomes a logical moral philosophy. But the far Right often tries to commingle the idea of “paying your dues” with “loyalty to blood” and family responsibility. It is true, conventional marriage and parenthood does provide a natural entry point to taking care of others. Sometimes, family elders will feel insulted when a member goes off on his own in a way that challenges family loyalty, when the member had depended upon family; but family is not always right about everything, and the individual is challenged to find legitimate modes of service to others to justify his expressions.  The ultimate paradox is reconciling our belief in personal achievement with the moral need to give dignity and support to everyone. Over time, we can imagine proposing and developing a “social order” focused around (1) professional accountability, (2) personal fitness (including “paying your dues” in the work world), (3) public service, and (4) family responsibility (assigned to those who do not create it through marriage) becoming developed as a way to avoid too much government on the one hand, and, on the other, deal with the perception that the unsupervised freedom of some corrupts the lives of others, to the extent that the return of real authoritarianism could be threatened. It is even conceivable at some point, however distant this may seem now, that basic constitutional citizenship rights (such as the weight of one’s vote) could depend functionally upon whether one has some responsibility for others or has performed some kind of service.


©Copyright 2004 by Bill Boushka, subject to fair use


Return to home page     Return to controversial issues page    Read essay on when “does my freedom compromise others”?  Read letter to Rep. Moran on national service


[1]“Merit table   A whimsical example exists already as AOL provides IM customers a “popularity score” based on buddy lists; popularity in high school may go against academic performance and literacy. The news story is by Jose Antonio Vargas, “IM Someone: The Online Popularity Contest: New AOL Feature Turns Buddy Lists into Social Pecking Order,” The Washington Post, July 21, 2005.  As an example of real citizenship problems, Daniel Taylor, “Who Will Answer the Call: Volunteers for fire departments and rescue squads are becoming scarcer, prompting some toe wonder…..” (TN/VA) The Bristol Herald Courier, July 17, 2005.




(readEphram’s Fatal Flaw” on TheWB – a great little piece to study in high school English composition classes).


Contact me: JBoushka@aol.com  or at the contact page