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Service to Whom? Part 2

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A more subtle problem is the long-term effect of federal funding on the volunteer groups and those who normally support volunteer groups. To some it might seem hard to criticize grants to organizations such as Habitat for Humanity (which until recently refused to accept government funding), Big Brothers-Big Sisters, and the Red Cross. These groups do good work and money given to them, in contrast to that donated to some other organizations, is likely to be well spent.

Who, however, should do the giving? It is certainly simpler if the IRS empties pockets nationwide, hands a bit of the money collected to the National Corporation, which, in turn, gives it to charity. But the right way is for individuals to send their money directly to deserving groups.

Indeed, at its most basic level, real charity doesn’t mean giving away someone else’s money. As Marvin Olasky, author of The Tragedy of American Compassion, has pointed out, compassion once meant to “suffer with.” Over time, it came to mean writing a check. Now it seems to be equated with making someone else write a check. It’s bad enough that we do that for public welfare programs, which are at least theoretically accountable to taxpayers for their activities. Doing it for private charities, especially those with philosophical or theological viewpoints that may conflict with those of many taxpayers, is especially dubious.

Nor is dependence on government healthy for private philanthropic groups. Although they get to choose and train volunteers funded by the Corporation, it seems inevitable that government will end up favoring some activities and disfavoring others. Such preferences may not be nefarious, but they are likely to be arbitrary, and groups will be tempted to adjust their mission and activities to ensure eligibility for federal funding. A report issued by Public-Private Ventures noted that the Corporation has taken an aggressive role in shaping service programs.

Even if the Corporation eschews the natural temptation to meddle, recipient behavior is likely to change. If nothing else, groups are also going to be tempted to shift their fundraising from private appeals to “public education” and formal lobbying. After all, government checks tend to be larger and may seem easier to obtain than private donations.

Moreover, turning the job of funding private groups, however worthy, over to government is likely to encourage people to further abdicate their civic responsibilities. If we are serious about strengthening civil society and recreating a sense of individual duty to help those in need, we must emphasize contributing as well as volunteering.

In fact, thoughtfully choosing which charities to support and monitoring the activities of those charities are themselves important forms of volunteerism. Sending money off to Washington for distribution to private groups benefits the recipients but no one else. In contrast, people’s informing themselves, giving voluntarily, and getting involved strengthen the sinews of community. Getting more people to give more and to take more time considering where to give should be one of our highest priorities as we attempt to end the welfare state. But government-funded service, though implemented in the name of volunteerism, makes it less necessary for people to volunteer time and money in this fashion.

Is it realistic to expect people to volunteer more time and money? They won’t if they feel no pressure to do so, and they will feel less pressure to do so if the government not only provides public welfare programs but funds charitable groups.

Finally, AmeriCorps may have undesirable consequences on volunteers. Undoubtedly, many volunteers paid by the government really believe in what they are doing. But the Corporation has turned service into a job, one that pays more than other entry-level employment. Some participants privately admit that they see national service as a financially remunerative job option, not a unique opportunity to help the community. Indeed, much of the president’s pitch for the program was framed in terms of naked self-interest: earning credit towards college tuition. Joining AmeriCorps to do so is surely no more noble than, say, pumping gas for the same reason.

Government-funded service also probably makes more people believe that they deserve to be served. That is certainly the case with the welfare state. Consider the activities of the “welfare rights” lobby — those who claim the “right” to seize other people’s money. When service meant charity, everyone understood that help was offered voluntarily out of a sense of personal moral obligation (particularly to God), not legal duty to the recipient. But government programs have transformed the sense of that obligation. Programs such as Americorps will only exacerbate the entitlement ethic.

Indeed, Americorps spreads the sense of entitlement to supposed servers as well as beneficiaries. For instance, President Clinton has used it to promote the idea that students have a right to a taxpayer-paid education. The price is simply “service” in a government-funded and government-directed program. Some AmeriCorps volunteers do sacrifice, but there is no real sacrifice involved in, say, informing people about the availability of FEMA Service Centers, maintaining vehicles, surveying residents about recreational interests, cutting vegetation, and changing light bulbs in dilapidated schools — all activities funded by the Corporation.

Obviously, the solution to the entitlement mentality is not to say that students are entitled to taxpayer aid as long as they work for the government for a year or two, but to drop all college subsidies. We should also address the host of other “entitlements” — business welfare, Social Security, defense subsidies for foreign nations, and on and on — that riddle the federal budget and sap people’s independence.

There are other, more practical objections to programs such as Americorps, of course. Presumably some good is being done by government-paid “volunteers.” After all, it is hard for even Washington to spend hundreds of millions of dollars without achieving something. But there is no guarantee that taxpayer-funded “service” will be worth its cost.

Even attractive-sounding jobs won’t necessarily produce significant social benefits. Some waste is almost inevitable. Local organizations are not likely to use “free” labor from the federal government as efficiently as if they had to cover the costs themselves. Moreover, there is an opportunity cost to government use of money seized from private individuals: tradeoffs must be made, yet national service treats some jobs as sacrosanct while ignoring other, disfavored tasks. And there have been the inevitable political abuses. In sum, government “service” is a good deal for no one.

It is bad enough for government to discourage real volunteerism. Even more tragically, it is government that creates many of the problems that require volunteer assistance.

For instance, business performs its most important service to the poor by doing what it is constituted to do: employ people and provide goods and services. To the extent that it does so successfully, it will reduce the incidence of poverty and alleviate attendant social problems. Moreover, as business succeeds, it generates wealth for others — workers in related industries, pensioners, and more.

Yet state intervention hobbles business in myriad ways. And such meddling most hurts those low-cost, labor-intensive enterprises that provide employment and services to poor communities. The minimum wage puts unskilled employees out of work. Local public transportation monopolies forbid inexpensive jitneys that enable lower-income people to find and hold jobs. Burdensome zoning requirements and building codes, special-interest licensing laws, and other regulations impede the development of small businesses that are critical for lifting people out of poverty through work. It is no wonder, then, that many people find themselves unemployed, ill-educated, and seemingly without opportunity or hope.

Consider education. Illiteracy is rife among inner-city kids, so the president wants a million volunteers to teach students to read. But why are so many people — adults as well as children — illiterate? The problem is a public school system that doesn’t educate. The real answer, then, is privatization, not volunteerism: parents should be able to use their own money to choose among competitive private educational alternatives, ensuring that their kids end up not only able to read but also possessing the values necessary to become moral and responsible individuals in a free society. Yet the politicians who speak loudest about helping the poor most strongly resist repeal of the public school monopoly.

People devoted to the poor also need to help shift the perception that responsibility for solving social problems lies with the state and eliminate the barriers now created by government to individual, family, and community initiative. For most of America’s early history, people recognized that they had a moral (and religious) duty to care for those in need. To fulfill one’s responsibilities as a citizen and a human being required involvement in the lives of others.

Now, however, many people seem to believe compassion means the government’s spending money. Indeed, in response to President Clinton’s call on every church to employ one person now on welfare, Rev. Albert Pennybacker of the National Council of Churches argued, “Our job is not to compensate for the failure of government to do its job.”

But government’s responsibility is not to run the lives of its citizens. Rather, it is the duty of individuals, families, churches, and other community institutions to care for themselves and those in need. Today, however, most policymakers seem to think that they have been entrusted with the care of the entire population, and the Rev. Pennybackers of the world have been all too willing to slough significant responsibility off on government. Thus, politicians serious about restoring civil society must say, “No more.” They would do more for volunteerism by quietly modeling the primacy of private assistance and the moral responsibility of every human being for his needy neighbors than attending summits or creating new “service” programs.

Well-publicized volunteer programs are a staple of politics. Every president from Richard Nixon to Bill Clinton has undertaken one or more such initiatives. But like the much-ballyhooed “Hands Across America” more than a decade ago, none has had much impact. Programs such as Americorps are likely to yield no more lasting benefit.

Rather, policymakers need to answer for the failings of their own policies and lower the barriers to success, helping those in need to help themselves. Public officials must stop attempting to shift the center of gravity in the volunteer community from civil to political society. For civil society to do more, political society must do less.

In short, what we need is a renewed commitment to individual service. People, in community with one another, need to help meet the many serious social problems that beset us. Public officials should eliminate the thousands of public programs that discourage personal independence and self-responsibility, disrupt and destroy communities and families, and hinder the attempts of people and groups to respond to problems around them.

The private activism that would follow would need neither oversight nor subsidy from Uncle Sam. Some of the volunteerism could be part time and some full time; some could take place within the family, some within churches, and some within civic and community groups. Some might occur through profit-making ventures. The point is, there is no predetermined definition of service, pattern of appropriate involvement, set of “needs” to be met, or tasks to be fulfilled. America’s strength is its combination of humanitarian impulses, private association, and diversity. We need freedom, not government-mandated, government-funded, or government-directed service.

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    Doug Bandow is vice president of policy at Citizen Outreach, the Cobden Fellow in International Economics at the Institute for Policy Innovation, a senior fellow at the Cato Institute, and serves as adjunct scholar for The Future of Freedom Foundation. He is a former special assistant to President Reagan; he is also a graduate of Stanford Law School and a member of the California and D.C. bars. BOOKS BY DOUG BANDOW: Leviathan Unchained: Washington’s Bipartisan Big Government Consensus (forthcoming) Tripwire : Korea and U.S. Foreign Policy in a Changed World (1996) Perpetuating Poverty : The World Bank, the Imf, and the Developing World (1994) The Politics of Envy : Statism As Theology (1994) The U.S.-South Korean Alliance : Time for a Change (1992) The Politics of Plunder : Misgovernment in Washington (1990) Beyond Good Intentions : A Biblical View of Politics (1988)