Better Than Snake Oil

Voluntarism Is a Sociable, Sensitive Method of Reform

This issue of The Freeman emphasizes voluntarism and voluntary solutions to public problems, a topic of great interest to friends of limited government.

When people have a problem to solve, they tend to reach for anything. When we’re ill, for example, there’s no limit to the remedies some of us are willing to try. Even drinking snake oil can seem better than giving up and doing nothing. Many government programs are adopted on this same basis. Their promoters know that they have failed in the past, but they support them saying, “we’ve got to try something.”

The logic may be weak, but the sentiment behind it has a powerful appeal. The human race is a problem-solving species. If there are public problems to be addressed, people are likely to want to tackle them. If government is the only problem-solving system they see, then they will go on using it, decade after failed decade. The conservatives and libertarians who advise them not to will get no credit for saying “I told you so.” They will go on being ignored.

The natural, obvious problem-solving system for those who object to the coercion of the state is voluntarism. Voluntary groups can do—and are doing!—almost everything government is trying to do, and they can do it more sensitively and more efficiently. Friends of liberty needn’t be marginalized as ineffective naysayers. Holding high the banner of voluntarism, they can be the real problem-solvers.

It behooves us to learn about the voluntary sector, to understand its prospects, and to take our places as donors and participants in voluntary projects in our local communities.

—James L. Payne

Voluntarism’s Personal Touch: A Letter from Octavia Hill

Voluntarism is more than a principle. It also incorporates a style of leadership, a way of approaching people and their problems. If you are not going to use force to get people to reform, it tends to follow that you will have to approach them in a friendly manner in order to persuade them. Voluntarism is therefore a sociable, sensitive method of reform: the exact opposite of the impersonal, bureaucratic methods of government.

One who emphasized this personal approach was Octavia Hill, the nineteenth-century English reformer. As Peter Clayton describes in this issue’s article about her, she was instrumental in founding a number of voluntary enterprises in the social welfare field. In the 1860s she began a program of low-cost housing and social uplift based on personal contact between tenants and the manager. As a housing manager herself, she played the role of befriender, always looking for ways to guide tenants to happier lives. She brought them flowers, arranged outings, set up drama groups, and established a savings program for them.

Her method of “friendly visiting” was copied in housing projects in other countries, including the United States. The following excerpt from an 1880 letter to a fellow worker in Philadelphia is an eloquent statement of the importance of personal involvement in programs of social uplift. The document was unearthed in the Temple University Library by researcher Tina Hummel.

Tell your fellow-workers from me, will you? how much interested I am to hear of what they have done and are doing. I am satisfied that visiting, such as I gather you have established, which brings those of different classes into real, friendly relations, must in time help to raise those who are fallen low in any sense of the word; from wealth, little can be hoped; from intercourse, everything. That is to say, everything we have to give seems to communicate itself to those we love and know; if we are true we make them truthful, if faithful, full of faith; if earnest and energetic, earnest and energetic; while they give to us whatever they excel in: patience, energy, hope, industry.

It is only a gradual process, but it is a sure one. Human intercourse in God’s own mercy, seems appointed to be the influence strongest of all for moulding character. What we strongly desire to see those we work among become; what we ourselves struggle to be, that or something nearer to it, in time, they will be; and as poverty, drunkenness, dirt, and many other outward evils spring from character, so we can only really teach them by moulding character; first our own, and then insensibly and gradually those of our friends, poor or rich, and submitting in turn to learn from them in all in which they are greater or better than we.

Thus and thus only can we help one another, and your systems and our systems are valuable just in so far as they bring loving and helpful people among those who suffer or sin, and enable the different powers developed in different classes of people to tell on one another. From the beginning of the world it has been so, and we shall find no other way to save and to help. What we are in our homes, our shops, our markets, our school, our whole lives, that we shall be among our poor.

You who seem to have succeeded in developing regular visiting to a great extent, may be happy in remembering that it means the human intercourse, help, and friendliness which will lighten, cheer and purify many a home. I am sure you will scorn all systems if ever they become mere routine, and will feel that each visitor is bound to throw into the regular work the utmost amount of fire and heart, that your wisdom must be penetrated with tenderness, and your mercy far seeing in its wisdom.