Please, No More Volunteers

February 12, 2002 • Commentary
This article appeared in The Wall Street Journal on February 12, 2002.

The recent back and forth on AmeriCorps (Stephen Goldsmith and Leslie Lenkowski, editorial page, Jan. 31; Review & Outlook, Feb. 7 ancl Mr. Lenkowski’s Letter to the Editor, Feb. 8) still leaves open the basic question: Do we need such a program? In a free society, most human wants are satisfied voluntarily, through the market. That still leaves room for charity, of course. And in America, as de Tocqueville n{lted early on, voluntarism has nourished, despite disincentives posed by expanding public charity.

Yet President Bush seems to believe that government needs to play a still larger role in organizing and underwriting the charitable impulse. Messrs. Goldsmith and Lenkowsky imply as much as they plug AmeriCorps, USA Freedom Corps, Senior Corps, Peace Corps, and Citizens Corps. How did we get by without all those corps?

With government at the helm, charity is,·hardly voluntary, of course, starting with the taxpayer. The cost of recruiting ‘200,000 Freedom Corps volunteers, for example, is said to run $5.8 billion. And the volunteers, it turns out, are paid‐​enough to attract them, whatever ·the market rate for their services, but enough also to compromise their status. With government management, moreover, comes government control, however subtle, plus opportunities for mischief, as all acknowledge. Yet Republicans, as usual, plan to run the program better than Democrats did, oblivious to the central flaw in the scheme.

. ‘Perhaps Milton Friedman put it best when he criticized John Kennedy’s famous “Ask not what your country call do for you — ask what you can do for YOllr country.” As Mr. Friedman said. “Neither half of the statement expresses a relation between the citizen and his government that is worthy of the ideals of free men in a free society.”

Most people think they serve society best by doing what others are willing to pay for, voluntarily. Are we really better off if a future doctor devotes two years to “service” before going to medical school, thus denying us two years of medical service? Perhaps the greatest flaw in the administration’s plan is that it discourages sound economic and moral thinking in the name of morality.

We don’t need yet another federal bureaucracy to organize a cadre of “voluntary” corps. If Americans want to express thetr patrtotic feelings‐​surely, government did not organize the rebirth of flag waving‐​then opportunities abound to do so freely and efficiently. That’s the American way.

About the Author