Alan Greenspan, Boris Nemtsov, and The Responsibility Fallacy
June 5, 2015
by Casey Ellis
Quotes are often taken out of context.  I’ve frequently heard Margaret Thatcher quoted as having said “There is no such thing as society.  There are only individual men and women.”  Much as I despise Thatcher and her legacy, I often wondered if that was quite what she’d said.  Turns out, it wasn’t, as conservative commentator David Frum points out.

Fair enough.  Still, I can’t help but notice a problem in the last line of the actual quote.  Thatcher seems to suggest that we should at least try to not ask the government to help the destitute.  That should be their responsibility and, if they truly cannot do it, the responsibility of the “living tapestry of men and women.”  In other words, people must help themselves and each other.  Unanswered however, is what a piece of that tapestry is to do if they are barely scraping by and a dear friend needs support.  What if one is living paycheck to paycheck and a loved one needs help with a sick child? 


Too many of us have learned in the last few years that these situations are not hypothetical.  The fiscally responsible thing to do is clear: shut the door.  And the morally responsible thing?  Do you help the person you love, even if it means potentially destroying yourself and your family?  Who exactly is responsible when these tragic choices occur and that gorgeous tapestry starts to fray?  Responsibility is, supposedly, the Right’s trump card.  But when they, and their laughable centrist enablers, use the word, they mean it in a very narrow sense.  The recent murder of Russian dissident Boris Nemtsov, and much of the western media’s reaction to it, gives us a good example of what establishment types (and people who make excuses for them) mean and don’t mean when they talk about “responsibility.”     


Almost twenty years ago, I nervously followed the 1996 Russian presidential election.  It seemed entirely possible that Communist candidate, Gennady Zyuganov, would defeat incumbent Boris Yeltsin.  Every adult I knew thought this would be a terrible reversal of Russia’s democratic gains since the collapse of the (undeniably tyrannical) Soviet Union in 1991.  Freedom needed to triumph, and I was alarmed at the thought that it might regress.  When Yeltsin won, I was relieved.  I wasn’t so oblivious however, that I didn’t know things were bad in Russia.  But I would only gradually become aware of the devastation inflicted on Russia by free market “shock therapy” in the aftermath of the Soviet collapse.

Russians had watched their country turn into an open sewer of corruption and poverty.  Russia’s woes were exacerbated by the rapid privatization of state industries, a process ferociously pushed on the nation by western governments.  And one of the people at the center of this was Boris Nemtsov. 

As Governor of Nizhny Novgorod, and later as Deputy Prime Minister, Nemtsov was an eager architect of the privatization schemes.  This has not stopped his murder from being seen as a martyrdom in the west.
The murder goes well with the (true) story of Vladimir Putin’s transformation into a full-blown dictator.  But how did all this come to be?  While he was not alone, Nemtsov did things that made life miserable for countless Russians.  He did not have to go hungry as many of them did, or watch his children consumed by alcoholism, or live in fear of newly empowered gangsters.  He carried out his “reforms” from the comfortable perch of the powerful.  He did not deserve to be gunned down in the streets.  No one does.  Russia did not, however, become a nation where this kind of crime is commonplace by accident. 


It comes down to a question of responsibility.  I can almost see people rolling their eyes as they read the last few sentences.  Even I feel tempted to.  The idea that Nemtsov bore some responsibility for the horrors of Putin’s Russia will be dismissed by many as an excuse.  Pointing out the gravity of his errors in the 90s will be decried as apologizing for his murder.  For me, that gets to the heart of how conditioned we are by the powerful to view responsibility on their terms.  Unsurprisingly, those terms make sure they are never called to account for their actions.  We on the other hand, are granted almost no quarter on ours

It was apparently the duty of the Russian people to stand by liberal democracy, no matter what.  Any cries for help were attempts at evasion.  And those who held power in and over Russia?  Did they have any responsibility?  Would it have been virtuous for the leaders of the USA and Europe, so smugly proud of their freedoms, to take a good look at the anarchic lampoon of “freedom” they were foisting on Russia and think how its people would react to it?  Should Nemtsov and Yeltsin have stopped and thought about what they were doing to their fellow Russians?  The message from people at the top (like Thatcher) may not always be explicit, but it is clear enough: no blame can attach to the elite.  Their acts must be just; they are who they are.        


So Thatcher’s “living tapestry” certainly exists, just not for everyone.  If you already have a degree of fame, power, and/or wealth, you can count on helping hands to usher you through your most humiliating failures.  In fact, any failure will be almost exclusively on paper.  Former Federal Reserve Chairman Alan Greenspan missed the worst financial meltdown since the 1930s.  Either he genuinely did not get it or he simply did not care.  The consequence of the former should have been his name becoming a byword for stupidity.  The consequence of the latter should have been prison.  What is Greenspan’s actual fate?  Dignified retirement soured by some verbal criticism, assuming he pays much attention to such commentary.

Now comes the moment when some will declare “that’s how the world works.  No point getting upset about it.  Deal with your own shit.”  To answer that, I would refer readers to a bridge in Moscow on February 27th, 2015.  That was where and when Boris Nemtsov met his end.  In the 1990s, Russia became a place where the “living tapestry” didn’t just fray for the vast majority of people; it failed even the elite.  Russia was transported back to a time when the game of power was not just a comfortable chess match, where being a loser didn’t mean suffering some testy editorials.  The losers in Russia got three options: fight Putin’s regime, join that regime, or withdraw from public life.  Nemtsov chose the first option, and there is some honor in that, especially considering it is not a decision often accompanied by longevity.  Yet if Nemtsov and his allies had thought about what they were doing to their country when they had the chance, he and all Russians might have had better choices. 

I hope, for everyone’s sake, the United States and other western democracies never become places where even the comfortable and powerful have to play a zero-sum game.  But if they ever do, at the end of that long, grim path, what’s left of the elite will cry out for a return of Thatcher’s tapestry.  Here are my conditions: any tapestry must be for every single human being and, if you are at the top and you violate the social contract, you answer for it in a way that reflects the responsibility of your exalted station. 

In this new tapestry, while wrongdoing by anyone would not be ignored, the crimes of those who hold the fate of millions in their hands (politicians, business leaders, technocrats, etc.) would be treated at least as harshly as those committed by the weak and the helpless.  If the strong don’t like the terms of this tapestry, let them decline the responsibility and leave it to those few who see honor in true service.  Such a tapestry is possible.  Of course, it could never please Thatcher, the Right, or anyone on what passes for the center.  The reason, even when the elite can see the dark consequences of their actions, does not take long to figure out.  Russia in the 1990s would have been a titanic challenge, no matter what.  Why was there not a serious attempt to help Russia build a free society that was sustainable?  Those at the top talk about a lot of things: responsibility, democracy, freedom, virtue, compassion.  At various times, we’ve watched them throw all of these away.  The one thing they clutch to with real conviction is money.  Money, to the elite, is a moral.  Therefore, the new tapestry I’ve spoken of is a nonstarter for them.  It would violate the one principal they will not betray; its price is too high.    

Casey Ellis graduated from Manhattanville College in 2004, where he wrote a senior thesis on ethical issues in Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray. He received a Masters in English from the University at Buffalo in 2006, with a thesis on the language of the fool characters in Shakespeare’s major tragedies. He is currently an adjunct with the English departments of Westchester Community College and Berkeley College, and a verbal skills tutor with Huntington Learning Center. Whenever possible, Casey updates his literary blog “Tolle, lege!” (  In 2015, Casey edited the New Lit Salon Press anthology Startling Sci-Fi: New Tales of the Beyond.  Casey had previously line edited three other NLSP anthologies one of which, Salon Style: Fiction, Poetry & Art, contained his short story “The Creature from the Lake.”