Commentary

Taking the Voluntary Out of Voluntarism

Service is good, so government-provided service must be better, appears to be the motto of the Clinton administration. And the GOP Congress, unwilling to stand up for anything, seems only too ready to agree.

Shortly after taking office, President Clinton proposed a multimillion dollar program to hire volunteers: AmeriCorps. As with so many programs, it seemed to be animated by the best of intentions. Service has a long and venerable history in the U.S. 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 families give to charity; some 90 million adults volunteer. But the President has never been satisfied without expanding government, so he convinced Congress to put tens of thousands of ”volunteers” on the federal payroll.

The resulting Corporation for National Service has turned service into a job, one that, counting the educational tuition voucher, pays more than other entry-level employment. Some participants admit that they chose AmeriCorps as a good job option to help them get through college precisely how Bill Clinton sold the program. Nor are taxpayers likely to get their money’s worth from AmeriCorps. Supporters cite impressive statistics about trees planted and beaches restored, but even the government finds it hard to spend billions of dollars without doing some good. Moreover, the true price of such jobs, however attractive they appear, is the opportunity cost, that is, the value of the other activities forgone.

A more subtle problem is the likely long-term effect of federal funding on the volunteer groups and their supporters. The availability of government support is likely to skew the activities of eligible organizations in an effort to obtain more aid. Moreover, turning the job of funding private groups over to the state encourages people to further abdicate their civic responsibilities. Thoughtfully choosing which charities to support, and monitoring the activities of those charities, are themselves important forms of voluntarism.

Most Republicans initially opposed AmeriCorps, and they have controlled Congress for more than four years. What have they done with AmeriCorps? Hiked its budget two years in a row. Now the administration is proposing an increase of $113 million for next year, up to $585 million. At least service in AmeriCorps, though not the taxes that fund it, is voluntary. But some would make service mandatory. The state of Maryland, along with as many as 1,200 school districts nationwide, already require that students ”serve” to graduate from high school. The value of this work is even more problematic than that performed by AmeriCorps. For instance, in Maryland ”service” has included working in a Democratic gubernatorial candidate’s campaign.

Although constitutional challenges to such programs have failed, Scott Bullock, an attorney with the Washington-based Institute for Justice, says that lack of popular support, compounded by administrative problems, have slowed their spread. Compulsory compassion is an obvious oxymoron. In fact, there’s new evidence that the attempt to make people generous backfires.

Arthur Stukas (University of Northern Colorado), Mark Snyder (University of Minnesota), and E. Gil Clary (College of St. Catherine) have published a fascinating study in Psychological Science of ”mandatory voluntarism,” which, they conclude, makes people less likely to volunteer later in life. The reason is not hard to understand. Observe Stukas, Snyder, and Clary: ”limiting an individual’s freedom to act may lead to desires to reestablish that freedom, which can be accomplished by derogating the forced activity and by refusing to perform it once the mandate has been lifted.”

This isn’t a new insight: A 1991 study found that blood donors who were first forced to give were less likely to donate blood in the future. Stukas, Snyder, and Clary came to a similar conclusion about broader service mandates. They found that mandatory school requirements ”may reduce interest in an activity.” Ironically, the effect was ”strongest for participants with greater prior experience as volunteers.” Another case measured the inclination to serve of students who did and did not face a mandatory requirement. The researchers found that mandates didn’t have much impact on those more ready to serve, but that ”participants who were more inclined against freely volunteering subsequently reported greater future intentions to volunteer when they completed service that was chosen rather than mandated.”

That is, compulsion drove away the very people it was supposed to attract. There may be no better evidence of the imperialist tendencies of politicians than their attempt to take the voluntary out of voluntarism. People should serve those around them. But they should do so because they believe it to be right, not because the government pays or makes them do so.

Doug Bandow is a senior fellow at the Cato Institute.