Personal responsibility? What on earth is that?

Here’s a challenge: in the haystack of departmental post-election briefings to ministers find the needle, the references to personal responsibility.

I’ve ploughed through 14. The firm message is that a large number of your fellow-citizens are helpless. Things happen to them, disadvantages are imposed on them, barriers are erected to stop them being full members of society.

The disadvantages and barriers are so insurmountable for some that they can’t even get their under-6s to the doctor for free treatment.

Helplessness gives the government a raison d’etre. It can cause other things to happen to these pingpong-balls on the ocean of life, can conquer disadvantages and dismantle barriers.

Moreover, the government has two commanding mandates.

One is that we need all hands to the pumps if this ship is not to founder in the heaving global economic swell. There will be no top-half place in the OECD if large numbers are not sharp and on to it.

The second is the Treaty of Waitangi, as now interpreted in official despatches. The government must make good the average underachievement of Maori in education, health and earning-power.

The second ties back to the first. The Ministry of Education’s briefing tells us that a growing percentage of the workforce will be Maori.

Hence the importance of the government’s early childhood education strategy, launched last week. This aims to get more children into under-5 education under trained teachers.

Research quoted by Education Minister Trevor Mallard at the launch found quality pre-school education not only gives children a flying start at primary school but they are still doing better five years on.

So the state has it in its power to make up some of the lost ground for children who are disadvantaged by not having parents who read to them, give them numbers skills and challenge and encourage them to inquire and learn.

The state can act even earlier to rescue children from such unproductive homes by prodding the parents into action or by intrusive intervention.

Early childhood education is Social Services Minister Steve Maharey’s “social investment” in action. The returns look good both for the children and for society, both in better-performing economic units later and in lower eventual costs in “social protection” for the fewer who can’t hack it.

So you might expect a government that has made an “innovative economy” its second term credo to go at early childhood learning with urgency. It has, indeed, upped the tempo from the tentative 1990s and given it high priority.

But the strategy takes the government’s hallmark “incremental” approach. Funding is modest. Higher participation (now 60 per cent) is a goal but there is no target. The focus is on “communities where participation is low” but there is no action plan for children most in need.

So the investment will produce suboptimal returns. Many children will still start school perplexed by letters and numbers and grow into adults who cannot even drive forklift trucks because they are computer-controlled.

They will inherit their elders’ low aspirations. A high aspiration gives a fighting chance of doing well; a low aspiration virtually ensures failure. Lifting aspirations is a logical goal of early childhood education.

But “aspiration” is not a word you hear a lot from officials. An entire two-day skills conference in May avoided it.

Perhaps that is because “aspiration” comes uncomfortably close to the notion of personal responsibility: that, whatever one’s handicaps, the highest-order responsibility is one’s own.

Labour pioneers did not find that notion foreign. But I did not find it in the post-election briefings I read. The Ministry of Social Development is keen on “social investment” but in 102 pages it mentioned personal responsibility in only three paragraphs, in the context of “expecting” beneficiaries to plan and work.

In other words, state, not personal, responsibility, is the higher order presumption of policymakers.

Turn this round: a society of people aspiring to get on, expecting self-responsibility and helping strugglers as a merited social good, might not be so fragmented as ours.

And such a society might even craft the “innovative economy” the government craves.