The Dark Side of Modern Voluntarism

andrew E. Barniskis is an aerospace engineer and consultant in Bucks County, Pennsylvania.

Voluntary civic and charitable effort is an American tradition, and most of us have witnessed it at its best at some time in our lives. A young family’s home will be damaged by fire, and within minutes people who have never met them come forth with donations of food, clothing, and furniture. A neighborhood will donate a weekend of voluntary labor to clean up and refurbish a local park or playground. We take such actions almost for granted.

But in recent years voluntarism has developed a dark side, which has also come to be taken for granted. Too often, volunteer effort is used by well-meaning people to demonstrate a false feasibility for their favorite charitable or civic undertaking, for the purpose of inducing government to take over the project. The economics demonstrated using privately donated funds and volunteer labor are then replaced by the economics of coercive taxation, and sometimes even conscripted citizen labor.

A municipality near where I live provides a useful example, if only because it’s an example being repeated in hundreds of places across the country. Several years ago, a highly motivated young woman and a committee of her environmentally aware friends convinced their township officials to set up a voluntary recycling center on township property.

The township received the proceeds from sale of the recyclable materials, and benefited somewhat from the reduction of landfill space used. Meanwhile, the committee built a constituency of other voluntary recyclers, who would meet on Saturday mornings when residents dropped off their cans, bottles, and newspapers.

In two years, the township took in about $3,000 and saved perhaps a dozen truckloads’ worth of landfill space. But this was accomplished thanks to countless hours of volunteer labor by workers at the recycling center, and by residents who took the time to sort, wash, and bundle their recyclable trash and transport it to the center on Saturday mornings at their own expense.

Eventually, one member of the volunteer recycling committee parlayed his new visibility in the community into election as a township supervisor. Soon, the energetic founder of the voluntary program was appointed by the township to the newly created position of Recycling Coordinator.

As a result of the “success” of the voluntary recycling program, it soon came about that one neighborhood in the township was chosen for a voluntary pilot program for curbside pickup of recyclables, and a year later—perhaps inevitably—the township supervisors, at the urging of the now quasi-official volunteer recycling committee, voted in an ordinance making curbside recycling mandatory for every resident in the township.

How different the new mandatory program is from the cheerful Saturday morning volunteer efforts! Anyone placing recyclable materials in their ordinary trash is now subject to a $300 fine. “Scavengers,” who used to drive around the streets in the early morning hours, using their own time and effort to gather recyclables from trash, are subject to a fine of $300 for every property they visit. Recyclables now belong to the township, by law.

A frightening change of spirit surrounds the new program. Thus far, it appears the township will collect far less for recyclables than it is paying a contractor for the service of picking them up, and the volume collected has been a negligible fraction of the amount of landfill space still being used. Nevertheless, the township is proclaiming the program a “success,” while ‘at the same time searching for scapegoats to blame for why it’s not more successful. Residents are asked to turn in the license numbers of suspicious vehicles that might be “scavenging,” and, in another perversion of voluntarism, there is talk of establishing “block captains” and using Neighborhood Watch groups to enforce the recycling law. People criticizing the program at public meetings have been subjected to vicious verbal abuse, including suggestions that they leave the country if they don’t want to be part of a “civilized society.”

The above is only one example of how voluntarism ceased being good when perverted by a collectivist mentality. There are others. In an-other city, a group of volunteers found a way to build shelters for homeless people at a cost of $40 each. Buoyed by their success, they approached the city with a plan to build more substantial shelters—but now at a cost of $10,000 each, to be paid for by a public grant. It is unexplained why they expect their concept of public housing to be more successful than the scores of failures of public housing in the past—or why a target cost of $40 per unit seemed appropriate while using their own funds, but grew to $10,000 when other people’s funds became available.

It has become a cliché for volunteer workers to decry the “Me Generation,” but they fail to see that what they offer is something far worse. In the past, when asked who would undertake a volunteer effort, volunteers answered, “Me!” Today, their answer is, “You!”

Somehow, the so-called “Me Generation” seems less self-centered and arrogant—and certainly far less threatening to our freedom.

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