Drug-testing of people like pilots and train engineers.

Maryland motorcyclists, who as adults are required neither to wear helmets nor to carry medical insurance.

A 15-year-old mother applying for welfare benefits.

A sudden plant closing.

The answer is not that they raise your blood pressure, though that's close. No, what these situations and individuals have in common is that they all exist at a very tricky place -- the slippery nexus of rights and responsibilities in late 20th century America.

They exist at a point where Americans begin to argue about what rights (or responsibilities) the individual has, and what rights (or responsibilities) the larger group has. They are all about who owes what to whom -- and, perhaps, about whose welfare is most important, the group's or the individual's. Like this:

Is drug-testing of pilots and engineers evidence of a new Puritanism, an unwarranted governmental intrusion into private affairs, the first step down the slippery slope to a police state? Or does society have the right -- indeed, the responsibility -- to protect its citizens from those who drive or pilot irresponsibly?

Are Maryland's motorcyclists exercising their rights as free men and women in a free society to feel the wind in their hair when they so choose, or by doing so are they placing an unjust burden on the society of which they are a part?

Does the young welfare mother owe anything to society in return for the check she gets? Or is such a suggestion evidence of a moralistic imposition of values, and probably racist to boot?

Does society owe something beyond sympathy to individuals thrown out of work by a plant closing? Should, for example, the society require as it now does that companies give reasonable notice before closing? Or have the companies already discharged their responsibilities to the individual by providing him or her with employment for as long as it was economically feasible to do so?

YOU GET THE IDEA. AL- though some Americans will find the answers to these questions easy -- maybe too easy -- others will tear their hair, throw up their hands and say there aren't any answers, or that the alternatives proposed just don't cut it.

Their confusion reflects the turmoil in the society around them. For the past couple of decades American society has tended to come down on the side of the individual and his or her rights, and to emphasize what society owes that individual rather than the other way around. But now some of those Americans who in the past have supported such measures are beginning to ask if perhaps they've gone too far. They are saying that perhaps it's time to start talking about what the individual owes society as well as the other way around.

These critics are also saying that the political system, which has always been the all-American way of fairly adjusting the balance between rights and responsibilities, has become mired in an outmoded debate that can't adjust anything. They say that with the Democrats frozen in the society-owes-the-individual posture, and the Republicans stuck in the individual-owes-the-society position, neither party is able to connect with the middle ground where most Americans live and breathe.

And as a result we have a stalemate, such critics say, and in the place of a responsible citizenry we have a nation of whiners and litigants and blamers, blaming the credit-card companies when they get into debt, the Japanese when American products fail to sell, the bartender when they have a drunk-driving accident, the doctor if their children are born defective, the test when they flunk -- blaming white people, black people, male people, straight people, any people, any person, anything, anyone but ,, themselves.

THEORIES ABOUT THE genesis of the United States of Blame range all over the map.

Take the political one first. The idea of individual responsibility is deeply rooted in American political history, says William A. Galston, professor at the school of public affairs at the University Maryland, College Park. And it still thrives: Most Americans believe they rise or fall as a result of their own efforts.

But, Dr. Galston continues, events such as the Depression and the civil rights movement also have powered another view of where responsibility belongs: a view that sees the structures of a society, its institutions and government, as also playing a vital role in how things turn out for individuals.

Thus, when the Great Depression began, Dr. Galston says, people at first tried to deal with the economywide distress as individuals, blaming themselves for their usually inevitable failures. But by the mid-1930s "there was a tremendous shift in attitudes, and we began to see these problems as a result of structural problems that individuals couldn't and shouldn't hold themselves responsible for." In other words, it wasn't you and me to blame, it was "it" or "them."

More recently, the civil rights movement gave credibility to the claim that structural injustice was at the heart of the nation's racial problems, and that it was up to the society to do something about it -- which it has tried to do. This success of the civil rights movement provided a model that was followed by dozens of other aggrieved groups.

Supporting these shifts in favor of the individual, and being supported by them, were changes in the American legal system. Contingency-fee payments, for example, made access to courts easier for individuals who could not otherwise afford it, and the concept of negligence was eased, so that even if litigants shared some part of the responsibility for a misfortune, they could still try for redress from the courts.

The worlds of psychology and medicine also did their part in lightening the individual's load. While once alcohol- or drug-abusers were believed to have bad characters, they now are seen as victims of unlucky genetic predispositions -- although your character is your responsibility, your genes are not. The larger community's responsibility, in the meantime, has grown as victims of addiction increasingly expect treatment and forgiveness for any wrongful deeds they commit in the course of their addictions.

Even -- perhaps especially -- the world of commerce has had its part to play in the enlargement of the sense of what is due to the individual. "Machine intelligence opened an enormous market for customization, a market that thrived on individual choice," says Martin E. P. Seligman, author of "Learned Optimism" and professor of social science and director of clinical training in psychology at the University of Pennsylvania. And as a result "our economy increasingly thrives on individual whim" -- on each individual making personal choices between 10 different styles of compact cars, 50 different brands of blue jeans, 100 different brands of cereal.

This can be a burden, says David Luban, professor of law at the University of Maryland and research scholar at the Institute for Philosophy and Public Policy, describing himself agonizing in the supermarket over just which peanut butter to buy -- but it's a burden Americans see as good.

"We have a culture in which expressing ourselves by making choices is what we see the good life -- the tolerable, human life -- as," he continues. "And we have to have a lot of rights to secure these possibilities."

FROM THESE ROOTS GREW what one critic calls "the rights industry."

It has yielded tremendous gains for many Americans, from minorities and women who can now become part of the power structure, to victims of misfortunes who now have some chance at legal recompense, to those caught in the toils of addiction who are now freed from the crippling burden of guilt.

But it has also led to a society where, critics say, people seem to expect everything for nothing, where rights have been decoupled from responsibilities -- a society where a man can kill the mayor of San Francisco and then claim that Twinkies made him do it.

Take the matter of relabeling behaviors as addictions, as diseases. "This whole drift of thinking, of finding disease explanations for things -- all of that supports loss of responsibility," says Stanton Peele, psychologist, addiction expert and the author of "Diseasing of America." And the problem with that is that when you remove the responsibility, you are at the same time removing the impetus to change, Dr. Peele says. Instead, addictions of one kind or another become the easy-out excuse for all kinds of reprehensible behavior.

You also see a shifting of responsibility in the law courts, suggests Walter K. Olson, senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute, a conservative think tank. In "The Litigation Explosion," Mr. Olson argues, among other points, that "The favorite game in a lot of our courtrooms is creating new responsibilities which [lawyers and judges] pin on organizations or enterprises that they think are large enough to absorb them and be able to go on doing business."

The good side of this is that those who are best able to pay for a misfortune are the ones who end up paying for it. The not-so-good side is that the legal system has turned into a "backdoor means for carrying out broader notions of social responsibility," says the University of Maryland's Dr. Galston.

Take, for example, the case of a baby born with incurable defects. Once this was seen as an act of God and no one's fault, though the parents had to assume the costs of caring for the child. Now, though, the tendency is to cry malpractice and sue the obstetrician, although in almost every case brought to court the doctor is found not to be responsible. (The escalating costs of malpractice insurance and "defensive medicine" in the

meantime, are passed on to the consumer.)

Wouldn't it be better if instead the society assumed responsibility for such children, Dr. Galston asks, rather than trying to foist it onto either the doctors or the parents?

But at present this kind of political resolution is unlikely, critics say, because the nation's two major political parties are too busy hanging onto their opposing ideologies to deal with real problems. And the debate between them, says Dr. Galston, is not only polarized -- it's bankrupt.


In the field of addiction treatment, for example, things have begun to change over the last few years, says writer Charles Bufe, author of "Alcoholics Anonymous: Cult or Cure."

Mr. Bufe is critical of AA and similar 12-step programs because they require the individual to see himself or herself as powerless and therefore as a victim unable to change without external help. But recent years have seen the formation of three alternatives to AA, he says, that "stress personal empowerment and personal responsibility rather than personal helplessness." The three are Secular Organizations for Sobriety, Rational Recovery and Women for Sobriety.

In addition, perhaps as a result of the efforts of Mothers Against Drunk Driving and similar organizations, the perception of drunk drivers is changing, says Kelly G. Shaver, professor of psychology at the College of William & Mary.

"Drunk driving is being criminalized to a degree it had not been criminalized before," Dr. Shaver says, as society begins to treat drunk drivers as though they had made choices rather than somehow, through no fault of their own, found themselves behind the wheel with a load on.

This move toward personal responsibility is echoed on the political front by the communitarians. Communitarians are not organized, they are not monolithic, they are not even sure of their name -- some prefer "neoliberal" or "neoprogressive" -- but they do have an objective in common: Restore a sense of the individual's responsibility to the society -- but without losing the sense that the society also has responsibilities toward the individual.

"We need to reset a public thermostat to encourage a climate more supportive of public concerns," writes George Washington University sociologist Amitai Etzioni, but "without melting away basic safeguards of individual liberties."

Despite such disclaimers, the communitarians' incessant talk of the individual's responsibilities makes many observers dismiss them as neoreactionaries rather than neoprogressives. But according to the communitarians, making that kind of assumption is buying into the old, polarized way of political thinking.

Communitarianism is not "either-or, it's both-and," says Dr. Galston. If you ask him if individuals should be held responsible, he'll say yes -- but he'll add that society should be, too.

"The first argument in favor of personal responsibility sounds like a conservative argument; the second sounds like a liberal argument. What is the combination of the two arguments?" he asks. Although there may not be a fixed name for it, "it's what most Americans believe to be the case."

That's another basic tenet of the communitarians: that the "both-and" they are proposing is representative of most Americans. Americans believe in both social concern and self-reliance, writes Washington Post political reporter E. J. Dionne in "Why Americans Hate Politics"; "they want to match rights and obligations; they think public moral standards should exist but are skeptical of too much meddling in the private affairs of others."

But neither of the two existing political parties is able to express that kind of "both-and," critics say, so people avoid voting -- and when they do vote they elect Republican presidents and Democratic Congresses. Communitarians tend to be Democrats -- but they are Democrats who are trying to rebuild a liberal politics by using conservative means.

Such as expecting something in return for welfare. Americans who have themselves worked and saved and postponed having their own children resent giving money to a 15-year-old welfare mother when nothing is asked of her in return, says Elaine Kamarck, senior fellow at the Progressive Policy Institute, an arm of the moderate-to-conservative Democratic Leadership Council. Shouldn't the people paying the bills be able to expect in return a certain level of care for the child, a commitment to send the child to preschool, a requirement that the mother not get pregnant again until she can support herself? And shouldn't something be expected of the father, too?

If something were given in return for benefits, Ms. Kamarck says, Americans would be far more willing to support liberal agendas. Remember the G.I. Bill? she asks. Americans didn't mind paying the huge cost of sending returning veterans to college, because they felt the vets had earned it through their service to the nation. But that fine old liberalism died, she says, "when people decoupled rights from responsibilities and started demanding things from the government without giving anything in return."

Politically correct Democrats burst into howls of dismay at such talk, which to them sounds like imposing values, a top-of-the-list no-no since the culture wars of the '60s. But any governmental action implies values, argue the communitarians, so you'd better imply values that are constructive to the society, instead of the destructive ones we have been implying.

The communitarians have two bibles: One is the journal The Responsive Community: Rights and Responsibilities, and the other is Mr. Dionne's "Why Americans Hate Politics," with its cogent analysis of the impasse between America's dominant political ideologies.

Also moving to the communitarian beat are the American Alliance for Rights & Responsibilities, an activist group formed about 18 months ago, and the New Paradigm Society, an informal, bipartisan group originally organized by Ms. Kamarck and Jim Pinkerton, a Republican. This "intellectual floating crap game," to borrow Dr. Galston's label for it, is interested in new approaches toward government and the public sector.

Picture this, Ms. Kamarck says, and you've got the idea: "an activist government which is not a bureaucratic government."

BUT NOT EVERYONE IS CONvinced that what the communitarians are advocating is progress, or even neoprogress.

Such critics tend to find the communitarian calls for things like sobriety checkpoints too close to police-state methods. In addition, such critics say, communitarians assume Americans share values that in fact they may not. Problems arise, they say, exactly because people in a multicultural society do not have a consensus of values.

Communitarianism's emphasis on the community is very appealing, says the University of Maryland's Dr. Luban, but "when it extends to the idea that we ought to have a value consensus, it seems to me there's a kind of repressive cast to it. . . . You can't have Salem without witch trials."

Communitarians, on the other hand, argue that they're not repressive because they're not imposing a consensus but expressing one. On the matter of sobriety checkpoints, for example, Dr. Etzioni asserts, "It's not my capricious views I'm talking about," but the community's shared belief: that "the community does not want drunken drivers."

But perhaps you should decide for yourself just how consensual the communitarians are. Here, then, are some of their arguments -- not necessarily shared by all communitarians -- on three of the cases listed at the beginning of this story:

Drug-testing pilots and train engineers: If a person holds the safety of others in his or her keeping, argues Elaine Kamarck, "then it makes sense to hold them to a certain standard." But this does not mean drug-testing should be imposed as a moralistic measure on those the physical safety of the public doesn't depend on, like teachers.

Maryland motorcyclists: If they want to take the libertarian position that they are free to do as they please without societal intervention, they are welcome to it, says Dr. Etzioni -- but then they must also be ready to assume full responsibility for their acts: paying all their own medical costs in case of accident, setting up trust funds to care for dependent children and so forth. But individuals have "no right to impose pain and costs on others," so if motorcyclists expect such costs to be assumed wholly or in part by the community (as they are likely to be at present), they should also expect to be asked to contribute in their turn to the well-being of the community by wearing helmets or buying insurance.

Plant closings: "The basic idea here is the notion of reciprocity, where in a collective endeavor all of the parties have responsibilities," says Dr. Galston. "Individuals who have worked for a firm for many years and who have discharged their responsibilities then have some rights vis-a-vis that firm," and the firm has responsibilities toward them, such as to give fair notice of the closing, maintain pensions to which workers have contributed and help workers relocate when possible. And it's not at all inappropriate for society as a whole, Dr. Galston concludes, to ensure that corporations do the right thing by their workers by passing laws to that effect.

Which puts the ball back in your court.

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