Voluntarism Should Be Voluntary
People Should Serve Others Because They Want To, Not Because the Government Pays or Forces Them
AUGUST 01, 1999 by DOUG BANDOW
Doug Bandow, a nationally syndicated columnist, is a senior fellow at the Cato Institute and the author and editor of several books, including Tripwire: Korea and U.S. Foreign Policy in a Changed World.
Service is good, so government-provided service must be better. That appears to be the motto of the Clinton administration. And the GOP Congress seems 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 honorable history in the United States. Americans’ willingness to help their neighbors was noted by Alexis de Tocqueville 150 years ago in his classic, Democracy in America.
And so it continues today. Three-fourths of American families donate money to charity. Some 90 million adults volunteer. The Independent Sector estimates the value of their time to approach $200 billion.
But Clinton has never been satisfied with leaving people alone, so in 1993 he suggested putting tens of thousands of “volunteers” on the federal payroll. The prospect of the federal government’s becoming a national volunteer coordinator caused some hesitation even in the Democratic Congress, forcing the administration to scale back its proposal to win passage.
Since then, entirely predictable problems have beset the growing program, just as critics warned. For instance, the federal Corporation for National Service treats “public” service as inherently better than private service. Many early AmeriCorps participants were assigned to federal agencies.
The Corporation has turned service into a job that, counting the educational tuition voucher that participants receive, pays more than other entry-level employment. Although some participants undoubtedly think of themselves as “volunteers,” others admit that they chose AmeriCorps as a good job option to help them get through college—which is precisely how Bill Clinton pitched the program. In this case, “serving” people through AmeriCorps is no different from flipping burgers at McDonald’s, only it’s done at taxpayer expense.
There is also the practical question of whether taxpayers get good value for the “service” they pay for. 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 sound, is the opportunity cost, or the value of other activities forgone.
“Public service” has a nice ring to it, but there is no reason to believe that a dollar going to it will yield more benefits than an additional dollar spent on pharmaceutical research, technological innovation, business investment, or any number of other private purposes. Indeed, the political process almost guarantees that money will be wasted. An AmeriCorps employee who is shelving books in a public library is doing no more than someone shelving books in a private bookstore. Nor is it necessarily a good deal to have, say, a potential doctor spend a year surveying residents, handling paperwork, or replacing light bulbs, all tasks performed by Corporation-funded volunteers.
A more subtle problem is the likely long-term effect of federal funding on real volunteer groups and their supporters. It might seem simpler to have the IRS empty people’s pockets and hand money to the Corporation, which in turn gives it to charity. But it’s better for individuals to send their money directly to deserving groups.
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 their activities, are themselves important forms of voluntarism. But government-funded service, though implemented in the name of voluntarism, 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 if the government not only provides public welfare programs but also funds charitable groups. More fundamentally, people should not be forced to underwrite charities in which they do not believe.
Most Republicans initially opposed AmeriCorps, and they have controlled Congress for more than four years. What has the GOP 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 participation in AmeriCorps, though not the funding, is voluntary. But there are some who would make service mandatory. The state of Maryland, along with as many as 1,200 school districts nationwide, now require that students “serve” in order to graduate from high school. Although constitutional challenges to such programs have failed, Scott Bullock, an attorney with the Institute for Justice, says that lack of popular support compounded by administrative problems has slowed their spread.
Compulsory compassion is a contradiction in terms. There’s even increasing evidence that it backfires. A study by Arthur Stukas (University of Northern Colorado), Mark Snyder (University of Minnesota), and E. Gil Clary (College of St. Catherine), published in Psychological Science, found that it makes people less likely to volunteer later in life. The authors observe that “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 is not a new view. A 1991 study found that people who were first forced to donate blood were less likely to do so in the future.
Stukas, Snyder, and Clary came to a similar conclusion about broader service mandates. In a review of the effects of one mandatory school program, they found that such a requirement “may reduce interest in an activity.” Ironically, the effect was “strongest for participants with greater prior experience as volunteers.”
Another study examined the service inclinations of students who both faced and did not face a requirement. While mandates had little effect on students eager to serve, the less-than-eager who were under a mandate were even less inclined to serve in the future than those whose service was voluntary. Thus compulsion drives away the very people it is supposed to attract.
Stukas, Snyder, and Clary suggest “students [be given] a sense of freedom and autonomy in meeting the requirements.” But that misses the point. Government should end all such requirements.
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 forces them.