All Commentary
Tuesday, January 1, 1991

80 Million Volunteers, But Where Are the Voluntarists?

James L. Payne has taught political science at Wesleyan, Yale, Johns Hopkins, and Texas A&M University. He is working on a book about the potential of voluntary problem-solving systems as alternatives to government.

Volunteering is in the air. Magazines and newspapers run features on the helpful activities of volunteers. Charitable donations top $114 billion, and a Gallup poll finds that 80 million Americans contribute some of their time to community activities.

Unfortunately, this highly promising impulse toward philanthropy and volunteering still lacks a sense of its own identity. Consider, for example, the orientation of the American Cancer Society. Starting with the leadership of Mary and Albert Lasker in the 1930s, this organization’s focus has been to lobby for Federal funding of cancer research. In the official history of the organization, a co-worker approvingly summarized the Laskers’ strategy: “The Lasker fortune could have established a research institution . . . . But Albert Lasker thought in bigger terms of involving the national treasury through appropriations. And the way to that goal was to organize a lobby for biomedical research allocations.”

Rather than addressing the cancer problem in a truly private, independent way, the Laskers spent their money strengthening the governmental approach. As a result of their activities, today we have a larger government, more taxes, and more bureaucracy.

In order to stand as an independent social movement, the voluntary sector needs to have its own philosophy, its creed of “voluntarism.” The voluntary approach has to be seen as distinct from, even the opposite of, the governmental approach. By definition, “voluntary” means not forcing people, but relying instead on persuasion and education. Government, on the other hand, uses policemen, soldiers, and tax collectors to force people to do what it wants them to do. In a world torn with violence and killing, voluntarism’s rejection of force is a precious distinction indeed.

The voluntary approach should also be different from government in the motives it appeals to. It should rely on, and attempt to stimulate, generosity and helpfulness. In this way, it can lay the foundation for a more caring, sensitive society. Government’s coercive approach goes in the opposite direction: it assumes people are too selfish to help their communities on their own, and it reinforces this selfishness by trying to force them to do so.

Sadly, this distinctive view of voluntary action seems almost unknown in the volunteer sector today. Most leaders of volunteer organizations are, like the Laskers, statists: they look to government to handle society’s problems. At the national level, hundreds of “volunteer” organizations serve as lobbies pressuring Congress to appropriate tax monies for their causes.

A similar pattern of governmental involvement takes place at the local level. Well-meaning, dedicated volunteers take up a worthy cause, but then turn to government. In one case, a public-spirited, voluntary recycling arrangement was converted into a government program once it was successful. In another, a local group raised private money to build an animal shelter, only to ask local government to finance its operation. Just about every local arts group seeks state and Federal grants.

Few seem to notice the harm these government connections do to voluntary groups. They bring red tape, a loss of independence, a loss of idealism, and a decline in morale and the spirit of self-sacrifice in the organization. Government funding also makes it somewhat hypocritical for a group to claim to be “voluntary,” since this money is raised through the coercion of the tax system.

The entwining of the voluntary sector with government has reached the extreme of having governmental “volunteer” programs. We now have the federal ACTION agency with its VISTA volunteers and Retired Senior Volunteers. Plans are afoot to expand this pattern ina Federal “national service” program for younger volunteers.

A voluntarist would view these arrangements with horror. He sees voluntary action as the problem-solving system of the future that will replace the burdensome and inept governmental method used today. To have government control and fund the volunteer sector is to make Ariel the slave of Caliban.

Volunteers are at the crossroads. They can continue down the path of “statist volunteering,” contributing to the expansion of the existing tax-and-spend governmental system. Or, they can become voluntarists, and work toward a brighter future based on caring and tolerance. To travel this road, however, they will need their own guidebook, a guidebook whose first recommendation is: Have nothing to do with government.

1.   Michael B. Shimkin, quoted in Walter S. Ross, Crusade: The Official History of the American Cancer Society (New York: Arbor House, 1987), p. 213.