THE ONCE commonplace idea that individuals are answerable for what they do, and that parents are responsible for the behavior of their children, is being codified as public policy in a number of states.
Some state and local governments are using what can fairly be described as coercive measures to encourage positive changes in personal behavior. In a dozen states, students who drop out of high school for reasons other than financial hardship face revocation of their driver's licenses. In Arkansas, a new law allows for the lifting of licenses of students who fail to maintain at least a C average. In Wisconsin, under a program known as Learnfare, teen-age mothers on welfare must return to school to study toward a diploma or face the loss of 45 percent of their monthly payment. In California, authorities can now hold parents responsible if their children engage in gang activities.
Some of these ideas may have more political appeal than practical effectiveness. Using financial rewards or punishments to keep welfare-dependent young people in high school doesn't assure they will develop job skills. Moreover, the personal responsibility agenda doesn't necessarily save money. Wisconsin's Learnfare has meant added costs for child care for the children of young mothers who have gone back to school.
But these and similar efforts to require greater personal responsibility seem likely to increase in political appeal. A steadily rising percentage of tax dollars is being spent to deal with the consequences of personal immoderation, laxity and misbehavior. As a result, other areas of legitimate government activity are being underfunded, affecting the overall quality of life.
Most Americans accept -- in fact insist upon -- an implicit social contract under which society, through the mechanism of government, undertakes to help those who because of age or infirmity or temporary misfortune need continuing or short-term aid. Most Americans similarly believe -- and may increasingly be prepared to insist upon -- the need for much stricter accountability in personal behavior. Behind the fresh emphasis being given that old belief may well be an intuitive sense that growing breakdowns in personal responsibility threaten the survival of a free society.
Solid reasons for these concerns to be discussed now in the political arena, not with buzzwords and cheap slogans and demagogic appeals, but soberly, compassionately, and with respect for the social stakes involved.