“This is really a matter of accountability,” snarled Tom Daschle on Fox News Sunday, “making sure that we can enforce the rights we’re now going to guarantee and that we hold everybody accountable.” In his superbly inarticulate way, Daschle was telling the truth for a change. First, you invent a right—in this case, the right of HMO patients to see a specialist, regardless of cost, whether they need it or not—and then the government proceeds to “enforce the rights we’re now going to guarantee.” The outcome is that “we hold everybody accountable.” By everybody, Daschle means insurance companies and physicians, not the congressmen who continue to undermine the economy and destroy institutions while pocketing bribes—I mean, “campaign contributions”—from interest groups.

“Accountability” is one of the many weasel words in American English that immediately give notice that the politician or bureaucrat or journalist is about to tell a whopper he has been paid to tell. “Responsibility” implied that someone actually had to answer for his conduct, so a vaguer term had to be imported from (what else?) accounting. Derived by way of French from the Late Latin word meaning “a reckoning,” “account” comes from the Latin computare—to count or reckon up—from the verb puto, which commonly refers to the act of considering or thinking but is apparently derived from the same root as “pure” and originally used to describe such actions as cleaning and pruning.

An “account” is a formal calculation of monies spent and monies owed. To call someone to account is to tell him to pay what he owes, and this is also the sense of holding someone “accountable.” Thus, “accountability” implies that there is a debt to be paid. But bureaucrats, whether they work for government agencies or semiprivate HMOs, are— like politicians and journalists-rarely held accountable for their crimes, much less for their mistakes. When Bill O’Reilly asked Trent Lott if he intended to hold hearings on how former Education Secretary Richard Riley misspent millions of dollars raised to carry out the reform of education he had promised. Senator Lott acted as if he did not know what O’Reilly was talking about, declaring sententiously that we need “more accountability” in education.

The fuzziness comes, in part, from the misuse of “accountability” by cult groups like Promise Keepers, which create small groups designed to “bear one another’s burdens” and to “hold each other accountable.” A Christian is obliged to bear his brother’s burden, but these sects so redistribute responsibility as to make it a meaningless term—a flight from duty, a denial of individual human dignity, one more ant in the socialist hill that is owned and operated for the benefit of people like the Senate majority leaders of both parties.