Is Voluntarism Enough?

May 27, 1997 • Commentary
This article appeared in Copley News Service.

As the Age of Politics, historian Paul Johnson’s name for the 20th Century, winds down, even liberals are championing civil society. Herds of politicians now say families and communities, not governments, hold the answer to America’s social problems. Explains President 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.”

To promote such service the President’s Summit for America’s Future convened on April 27. 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 have been promising money, services and products to nonprofit enterprises.

Mobilizing civil society to help mentor and tutor at‐​risk youth improve health care, support families, assist elder‐​care and more is obviously a good thing. (As long as it is truly voluntary: the sort of mandatory high school programs supported by President Clinton, essentially an attempt to make compassion compulsory, are an oxymoron.) Business can make a significant contribution to the effort, even if its immediate purpose is public relations.

Nevertheless pressuring firms to drop a few dollars on the less fortunate is not the most important issue. Rather, serious political leadership is most needed to help shift the perception of where the responsibility for solving social problems lies, and eliminate the barriers now created by government to individual, family and community initiative.

For most of America’s early history, people recognized they had a moral (and religious) duty to care for those in need. As Marvin Olasky, author of “The Tragedy of American Compassion” points out, compassion meant to suffer with. To fulfill one’s responsibilities as a citizen and a human being required involvement in the lives of others.

Since then, however, people have taken compassion to mean, first, writing a check, and more recently, making other people write checks. Indeed, in response to President Clinton’s call on every church to employ one person now on welfare, the Rev. Albert Pennybacker of the National Council of Churches argued that, “Our job is not to compensate for the failure of government to do its job.”

But Mr. Pennybacker has it all wrong. The biblical model is clear: The able‐​bodied are to work and support themselves and their families; churches are to nurture, aid and empower their members, people of faith are to serve those around them. To the extent government has a role, it is as the ultimate safety net to catch those falling through multiple private ones. Government should act only when civil society fails to do so.

Many people still do serve: Nearly half of the adult population volunteers, spending an average of 4.2 hours a week in service activities. But the Rev. Pennybackers of the world have been willing to slough significant responsibility off on government, which, as the most imperialistic of institutions, has avidly filled the void. Thus, politicians serious about restoring civil society must say “no more.” The president would do more for voluntarism by emphasizing the primacy of private assistance and the moral responsibility of every human being for his or her needy neighbors than attending summits.

Equally important, policy‐​makers should reform government policies that discourage voluntarism and impede community development. Mother Theresa’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 it proposed applying the minimum wage law to participants.

Indeed, the minimum wage hurts a host of low‐​cost, labor‐​intensive enterprises that provide employment and services to poor communities. 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 development of small businesses that are critical for lifting people out of poverty through work. And it is the public school monopoly, so tenaciously defended by the president and most other public officials, that has left illiterate the millions of kids to be tutored by volunteers.

Mr. Clinton should focus his efforts on these issues. Rewarding the successful who throw alms to the poor is fine. But better would be lowering the barriers to success, helping those in need to help themselves.

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. Today’s Summit participants must reach deeper issues to ensure that the latest effort doesn’t go the same way.

Public officials need to answer for the failings of their own policies. For civil society to do more, political society must do less.

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