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Service has a long and venerable history in the United States. It has perhaps become a cliché, but Americans’ generosity and penchant to organize to meet community needs were both noted by Alexis de Tocqueville in his classic, Democracy in America. And so it continues today. Three-quarters of American households give to charity. Some 90 million adults volunteer; the value of their time has been estimated by Independent Sector to approach $200 billion.
Volunteerism gains ever greater political appeal as the “age of politics,” historian Paul Johnson’s label for the 20th century, winds down. Today, even liberals are championing civil society. Herds of politicians now say that families and communities, not governments, hold the answer to America’s social problems. Explains President Bill Clinton: “Much of the work of America cannot be done by government, much other work cannot be done by government alone. The solution must be the American people through voluntary service to others.” At the very least, they advocate private-public “partnerships,” rather than grand new government social programs.
To promote such service, the Summit for America’s Future convened earlier this year. Representatives from volunteer organizations, businesses, and churches, along with local governments and Indian tribes, gathered in Philadelphia to, in the words of the sponsors, mobilize “millions of citizens and thousands of organizations from all sectors of society in order to ensure that every young American has access to resources considered essential for achieving healthy, fulfilling and productive lives.” In response, companies promised money, services, and products to nonprofit enterprises.
Enlisting civil society to help mentor and tutor at-risk youths, improve health care, support families, assist the elderly, and more is obviously a good thing. As long as it is truly voluntary. The distinction is important, since the government has a way of making involuntary the supposedly voluntary.
For instance, the state of Maryland and a number of local school districts require students to “volunteer” in order to receive a diploma from high school. Some volunteerism advocates, led by the president, support this attempt to make compassion compulsory, the worst sort of oxymoron imaginable. It makes a mockery of the idea of volunteerism.
Similarly, proposals abound to use the tax law to bludgeon business into doing what government considers to be “responsible” behavior. Some advocates of this approach would add volunteerism to their indicia of corporate responsibility. But “philanthropy” motivated by such threats would be extortion, not volunteerism.
Alas, the idea of compulsory compassion is not new. The venerable national service movement goes back at least a century, to Looking Backward, a novel by lawyer and journalist Edward Bellamy. Bellamy envisioned compulsory service for all men and women between the ages of 21 and 45, which, he said, would result in a peaceful and prosperous utopia. Bellamy’s book had a tremendous impact. In its time, it was outsold only by Uncle Tom’s Cabin and Ben-Hur and was translated into 20 different languages. Some 165 Bellamy clubs were started in 1890 and 1891 to push his egalitarian social system.
Two decades later came William James, who spoke of the need for a “moral equivalent of war,” in which all young men would be required to work for the community. He argued that “the martial virtues, although originally gained by the race through war, are absolute and permanent human goods,” and that national service provides a method for instilling those same values in peacetime.
Today, at least, most national service advocates eschew such far-reaching utopian visions of social transformation. Nevertheless, the desire to create the good society through service has lived on. Declared the Potomac Institute in 1979:
“International comparisons also fire some American imaginations. Millions of young people serve social needs in China as a routine part of growing up, many [are] commanded to leave the crowded cities and to assist in the countryside. Castro fought illiteracy and mosquitoes in Cuba with units of youth. Interesting combinations of education, work, and service to society are a part of the experience of youth in Israel, Jamaica, Nigeria, Tanzania, and other nations. The civic spirit being imbued in youth elsewhere in the world leaves some Americans wondering and worrying about Saturday-night-fever, unemployment, the new narcissism, and other afflictions of American youth.”
William James’s rhetoric 80 years ago remains the touchstone for national service advocates today. In succeeding decades, a host of philosophers, policy analysts, and politicians proffered their own proposals for either voluntary or mandatory national service. Their objectives, as indicated by the Potomac Institute’s report, usually involved far more than providing desired social services.
Some advocates saw national service as a means to provide job training and jobs. Others thought it would encourage social equality. Still others predicted it would promote civic-mindedness. Many backed it in order to expand access to college. And Margaret Mead saw it as a way to help liberate children from their parents.
The legislative process always shrunk such grandiose proposals into much more limited programs, such as the Peace Corps, various local and state initiatives, and, in 1993, the National and Community Service Trust Act, which established the Corporation for National and Community Service. But many of the grander goals remain: transforming participants, teaching values, combating balkanization, and expanding educational opportunity.
Thus, the heritage of national service — the desire that government involvement promote ends other than service — remains a critical factor in understanding politicians who promote “volunteerism.” We have to ask most fundamentally: service to whom and organized by whom?
Americans have worked in their communities since the nation’s founding, and opportunities for similar kinds of service today abound. Businesses, churches, and schools all actively help organize their members’ efforts. In a cover story, Newsweek reported that
“many of the old stereotypes are gone. Forget the garden club: today working women are more likely than housewives to give time to good works, and many organizations are creating night and weekend programs for the busy schedules of dual-paycheck couples. Men, too, are volunteering almost as often as women.”
Much more could be done, of course, especially given the seriousness of some of the problems besetting American society. But what makes service in America so vital is that it is decentralized, is privately organized, is centered around perceived needs, and is an outgrowth of people’s sense of duty and compassion.
Exhortation by government officials is harmless enough, so long as the veiled fist of punitive policy changes is not raised in the background. Of course, politicians who spend more time urging others to help than in helping aren’t the best salesmen for the benefits of voluneerism. Moreover, even truly voluntary contributions are viewed by many firms more as a tool of public relations than as an exercise of moral responsibility. However, neither hypocrisy nor self-interest diminishes the good that can be done by volunteers. We all have an enormous capacity to aid those around us.
Nevertheless, encouraging firms to voluntarily drop a few dollars on the less fortunate should not blind us to the most important issue. Government stands in the way of helping the needy at almost every turn.
Most bizarre are government policies that discourage volunteerism. Mother Teresa’s religious order dropped a planned AIDS facility because New York City insisted that the building include a costly and unnecessary elevator. Labeling requirements in Los Angeles prevent restaurants from giving food away to the homeless. The federal government threatened to put Salvation Army rehabilitation centers out of business when the government proposed applying the minimum wage law to participants. The state of Texas attempted to restrict the hiring of counselors by Teen Challenge, a religious drug treatment program with a far higher success rate than government programs. And on it goes.
More subtle is the threat posed by government-funded “service” programs, since they seek to fit volunteerism into a larger social plan implemented and enforced by government. AmeriCorps is the most obvious example. Not surprisingly, the federal program has amassed an impressive list of testimonials from private groups that welcome the corporation’s money. But Washington’s funds could prove almost as powerful as its mandates in reshaping the independent sector. Some voluntary organizations recognize the danger. David King of the Ohio-West Virginia YMCA has warned:
“The national service movement and the National Corporation are not about encouraging volunteering or community service. The national service movement is about institutionalizing federal funding for national and community service. It is about changing the language and understanding of service to eliminate the words ‘volunteer’ and ‘community service’ and in their place implant the idea that service is something paid for by the government.”
There is much in American history to give credence to King’s fears. The history of the welfare state is the history of public enterprise pushing out private organization. The impact was largely unintentional but natural — indeed, inevitable. Increased taxes left individuals with less money to give; government’s assumption of responsibility for providing welfare reduced the perceived duty of individuals to respond to their neighbors’ needs; and the availability of public programs gave recipients an alternative to private assistance, one which made fewer demands for the reform of destructive behaviors and lifestyles. After decades of an expanding state, most people today, irrespective of their ideological perspective, recognize that government has taken over too much of the poverty-reduction enterprise.
The National Corporation, despite the best of intentions of people such as its president, Harris Wofford, risks doing the same thing to philanthropy. A federal “service” program, especially if it expands over time, risks teaching that the duty of giving and the job of organizing giving (deciding who is worthy to receive government grants and, indirectly, private groups’ services) belongs to government rather than average people throughout society. At some point, service to society could become widely equated with work for the government.
There are already glimmerings of this problem. For instance, the Corporation treats “public” service as inherently better than private service. Service comes in many forms, however. Being paid by the government to shelve books in a library, whether as a formal employee or as an AmeriCorps member, is no more laudable or valuable than being paid by Crown Books to stock shelves in a bookstore. A host of private-sector jobs provide enormous public benefits-consider health care professionals, medical and scientific researchers, business entrepreneurs and inventors, and artists. Many of these people earn less than they could in alternative work; they have chosen to serve in their own way. Yet government programs that equate public employment with service effectively denigrate service through private employment.
This public sector bias is reflected particularly strongly in the fact that 2,800 of the first 20,000 AmeriCorps participants were assigned to federal agencies. For instance, the Department of the Interior used AmeriCorps workers to “update geological and hydrological information for the U.S. Geological Survey” and restore wetlands and wildlife habitat. Jobs such as these resemble traditional government employment rather than “service.” Such activities are not likely to promote volunteerism around the country.