Links on the crisis of responsibility

We live in a crisis of responsibility. Consider this twitter conversation with Lux Alptraum and myself. This was one of those good moments on Twitter; the very different networks in my feed crossed over, generating insight. I had just seen, via Simon Willison’s feed, this embarrassing story about that time futurvangelistic technogger Peter Diamandis presumably thought he was acting responsibly by trying to have an in-person conference without masks through doing a lot of PCR tests, rather like the Trump White House.

It struck me the two stories had a lot in common.

It’s dead easy to get rid of tests, and it’s dead easy to get funding for more of them. Everyone is obsessed by the £12-or-was-it-22bn that wasn’t, in fact, spent on contact tracing. Nobody seems to mind that something like 80% of the actual spend is on testing, no matter how much the government tries to find a use for all those Innova LFT kits. On the other hand, getting help for self-isolators or more sick pay is still like getting blood from a stone. Part of this is down to the test’s social role as a sort of surrogate for cure, but there’s more to it than that.

Similarly, it’s clearly easier to come up with supposed early warning signs – really, ways of judging people ahead of time, in other words, prejudices – about abusive relationships than it is to, say, fund a women’s refuge or prosecute the perpetrator. Even if the signs are merely prejudice on more or less denied grounds of class or race, or content-free style tropes, they at least serve the purpose of putting the burden of responsibility on somebody else. It was her fault; she didn’t read the signs. We have plenty of tests; we don’t need to bother with the masks or even report the outbreak to the public health investigators. Our social obsession with early warning is a tell that nobody wants to take responsibility for results.

Responsibility to the public, for well-defined acts or omissions with clearly identified authors, has probably never been weaker. The British government presided over a fairly gratuitous mass-casualty disaster a few weeks ago and nobody seems to think an event even occurred. At the same time, the private and inward variety has expanded enormously. We are asked to take responsibility for ever baggier, vaguer, and broader concepts, with an ever grander vicarious reach. Not surprisingly, the intensity of the feeling seems to diminish with its extent.

You can also see this between different institutions. The NHS has nothing but operational responsibility and output-legitimacy, and it triumphed with the vaccine drive. The European Commission, which is nothing but lawyers, not so much. The political-presentation government span itself into a hole in March 2020 and has yet to spin itself out, which may even be a good thing as it’s keeping it out of the vaccinators’ way.

This is why I found this interview with Suzanne Heywood so crushing. Britain 2015-2019 was a relentless parade of important people abasing themselves as they raced to avoid responsibility. Jeremy Heywood’s death in harness stands as a rebuke to this, even more so now that the balloon has gone up and the vacuity of so much of political life beyond parts of the core institutions has been cruelly exposed. The only way to sign on with those values, though, was with the other Jeremy.

2 Comments on "Links on the crisis of responsibility"

  1. I’ve always thought about this as growing out of the corporate and financial world’s view of liability, which is worth spending a lot of time and effort to avoid because it is not only about the immediate costs of damage done, or of taking responsibility, it is also about ongoing higher future insurance premiums. This is a perfect outcome of a Friedman-ist, profit maximising world: One of the best ways to cut costs is to find as many ways as possible to exclude them. Profit maximisation in itself is a way of turning social and environmental costs into “externalities” (they don’t have to be externalities, we have simply refined the idea of profit maximisation over time to exclude more things – eg. see Guy Standing on reduction in corporate welfare). Beyond exclusion by definition, you have to fight out everything else in civil courts with or against your insurers: That is the fight to progressively reduce liability exposure through the corporate world and equally in the government/public sector world. To be fair, some of this is also feedback from people doing dumb things or simply having accidents and then suing public bodies for damages believing the govt should have done more to protect them in the first place.


  2. “We are asked to take responsibility for ever baggier, vaguer, and broader concepts, with an ever grander vicarious reach.”

    Examples? Evidence?

    I think that you are on to something, but it needs some fleshing out.

    (If you want £ 100,000 from DfID to dig some wells in Africa, you have to set out the logic of your programme (probably in a logical framework with statements of all the risks and assumptions) and be willing to face fairly hostile questioning about it. If you are the PM, you can sign an international agreement that puts a customs border in the Irish Sea and then claim that you haven’t created such a border and newspapers of record will back you up.)

    Early warning systems. Early warning systems, by their nature, create false positives. Their objective is to trigger closer investigation and preparation for action, not action itself. Lateral flow tests generate many false positives – you should take another test, watch put for symptoms and isolate until you are sure. So what do you mean by “social obsession with early warning”?


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