On the campaign trail in 2012, Barack Obama gave a speech that would launch a thousand super PACs. The subject: individual achievement. Making what should have been a perfectly banal observation—that many of his fellow citizens had become successful through some combination of individual initiative and social advantage—Obama argued, “If you were successful, somebody along the line gave you some help. There was a great teacher somewhere in your life. Somebody helped to create this unbelievable American system that we have that allowed you to thrive. Somebody invested in roads and bridges. If you’ve got a business—you didn’t build that. Somebody else made that happen.”
Pundits gasped. In an editorial for The Wall Street Journal, which captured the wider handwringing elicited by Obama’s speech, James Taranto declared: “The president’s remark was a direct attack on the principle of individual responsibility, the foundation of American freedom.” For Obama’s many detractors, American politics appeared to have sunk to an unimaginable depth of moral depravity. Then came 2016.
Donald Trump assaulted many norms. He mocked a disabled journalist and a POW. He praised his own genitals, and shared his tips about grabbing women’s. Whereas Obama had walked back his supposedly offensive words, Trump rushed to Twitter to commit his next offense. Here, however, was a man who built things. Forget that Trump’s business credentials included a defunct New Jersey football team, repeat casino bankruptcies, and a brief stint as a wrestling heel. In gilded letters erected across the globe, he had embraced the myth that Obama dared to challenge—that regardless of how many unpaid bills had paved its way, economic success was patent proof of personal responsibility. As Raoul Martinez’s Creating Freedom and Yascha Mounk’s The Age of Responsibility indicate, so long as “personal responsibility” continues to undergird America’s national imagination, there will be many more Trumps in our future.
Of the two books, Martinez’s offers, on its face, a more radical break from contemporary political thought. Creating Freedom takes a simple fact as its starting point: No one chooses to exist. Instead, the human condition is a rude and unforgiving one. It takes shape in a universe that likes to play games but lacks the basic decency to ask the participants if they want to join. Each player is conceived by other players who did not choose to exist themselves, but who, perhaps in an act of cosmic fist-shaking, decided to visit the same fate upon a child.
Throughout life, modern citizens find that every action they take is already subject to an endless run of rules. They move in a body whose basic functions often malfunction, thinking through strategies with a brain that they did not design. No one really knows how to play the game of life—though some players act as referees anyway. What it means to win is still a matter of debate; nevertheless, players usually continue to think it involves adding another name to their roster. Despite this impulse, it’s obvious that some teams get a more favorable start than others.