Unpacking the Sausage: ‘Personal responsibility’ is crappy public policy

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In the grand millennial tradition, I picked up a side hustle walking my friends’ adorable dogs a few days a week.

As southern Maine’s first snow of the season fell, I tried to focus on how cute they are. It made it a little easier when it came time to pick up the shit-filled snowball that marked the end of our walk. The plastic bag over my hand helped. Gloves or mittens would have been even better, but I forgot to wear them. My mistake.

Bre KidmanHistorically speaking, it is conservatives who brandish the words “personal responsibility” in the face of unpleasantness. I might argue that the biggest philosophical difference between the parties is that the red team generally believes struggling people ought to pull themselves up by their own two hands (no gloves, no bags) and the blue team generally believes that the purpose of pooling resources through taxation is to ensure that those resources are there to help when people face times of need (bags outside the public park, maybe a trash can if we can get it past Joe Manchin). 

But then, what are we to make of Democratic Gov. Janet Mills’ call to “personal responsibility” and her decision not to require masks or vaccines in public spaces when faced with Maine’s worst stretch of the pandemic?

Mills deployed the National Guard because the hospitals are too overrun with COVID-19 patients to maintain operations. Still, without even the bare minimum mandatory prevention efforts (like mask mandates), the surge shows no signs of slowing down. 

With just 26 critical care beds available in the state (as of Dec. 8), Mainers are one bad bus crash away from being personally responsible for figuring out our own emergency care. Meanwhile, roughly 90 percent of critical care beds are filled by people who refused to be personally responsible for preventing the spread of the deadliest pandemic in a century (including HIV/AIDS, which has killed about 700,000 Americans since 1983). 

I know just two weeks ago I was talking about taking care of the things we can control and not losing sleep over the government’s inability to manage this crisis. I’m not writing this now because I think it will change Mills’ mind; I’m writing this because my fully vaccinated family member is in the hospital with COVID-19 and I can’t think of anything more frustrating to write about than the failure of our government to deliver the leadership they owe to us. Even – and perhaps especially – when the job involves the political equivalent of a shit-filled snowball.

Whether you sit on the blue team, the red team, or somewhere else, I think we can more or less agree that the primary reason to have a government is the large-scale issues that require cooperation and shared resources. I’m not thinking about an individual – or even a town – falling on hard times. This is about the big, dramatic, catastrophic events that make history. Terrorist attacks. War. Pandemics.

The entire point of public policy is to ensure we’re not left flailing inefficiently alone when we could thrive if we organized ourselves for the sake of our shared interests. We have highways instead of dirt paths because there was a time we could agree that we were all trying to go somewhere and we could probably get there faster if we worked together. No doubt some of the decisions involved in building those highways were inconvenient  –and maybe even cost some elections – and yet it got done because we needed it to happen.

We might not agree on how to solve problems, but until 2020 I could not have imagined the deadliest pandemic in a century would be the subject of so much debate about whether it’s a problem at all. It feels like pretending there is no shit-filled snowball behind your dog. No need for plastic bags, let alone gloves.

Pretend what you like, but the shit will still be there when the snow melts. We are all personally responsible for making choices that allow us to survive. I was responsible for bringing mittens to ensure my comfort, just as I’m responsible for deciding whether to go out or stay home.

But the data is clear: Requiring masks and vaccinations in public spaces are the best chance we have to stop the virus. If we want to stop wandering through a seemingly endless field of excrement, we need the kind of leadership that will stop worrying about the polls for long enough to at least get us some plastic bags. 

Bre Kidman is an artist, activist, and attorney (in that order), and the first openly non-binary person in history to run for the U.S. Senate. They would be delighted to hear your thoughts on the political industrial complex (or your weird pandemic hobbies) at [email protected].

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