BOSTON (CBS) – Personal accountability is a big buzz-phrase these days, in the workplace and elsewhere. The basic idea is you are responsible for your own actions, and while this can be empowering, it also means you’re on the hook for any problems they may create. It’s a very American concept, extolling the power of the individual. But a county judge in Oregon has issued a ruling that challenges just how far we’re willing to take the personal accountability concept.
Last summer, a 15-year-old boy playing with fireworks set off a huge fire in Oregon’s Columbia River Gorge, one of the nation’s most scenic spots and a major tourist attraction. Homes and hiking trails were destroyed, and the natural landscape was ravaged.
On Monday the judge ordered the teenager to pay more than $36 million in restitution to cover the damage. If he keeps his nose clean the punishment can be lifted after ten years, but in the meantime his bank accounts, paychecks, tax refunds and lottery winnings – if any – can be garnished.
People in Oregon are so angry at this kid for what he did that his name was withheld from court documents. And while his punishment is certainly severe, consider how plenty of us feel about hikers who venture into the woods or mountains without proper equipment or planning, or other careless people who foolishly run up a big tab at the taxpayer’s expense.
In theory, the $36 million fine is the natural extension of the personal accountability doctrine. With freedom comes responsibilities and consequences when you fail to meet them. An expensive lesson, maybe, but it sure seems like a worthwhile one.