All Commentary
Sunday, May 1, 1988

Vanishing Voluntarism

James L. Payne is a political scientist and visiting scholar at the Social Philosophy and Policy Center at Bowling Green State University. He is writing a book about Congress and the budget entitled The Culture of Spending, to be published next year by the Cato Institute.

The Planned Parenthood organization recently ran an unusual billboard advertisement in the cars of the Washington, D.C., Metro that says a lot about what is happening to voluntary groups in this era of big government. The ad shows an Asian woman and her child, with this caption: “It took a generation to give her a choice. And one Administration to take it away.”

The organization was protesting about a funding problem. The Planned Parenthood Federation of America has been receiving about $20 million yearly from the federal government to carry out birth control programs abroad. Recent regulations of the Reagan Administration (concerning abortion funding) led to a cutoff of money for foreign programs. Hence the Metro ad. But unlike the usual appeals of private organizations, it doesn’t ask the public for a dime.

“White House extremists have targeted Planned Parenthood’s international program for destruction,” it continues. “Congress can stop them. Call your representatives now. Tell them: if the extremists win, the whole world loses. Help us fight back.”

Planned Parenthood may, in fact, be a fine organization doing an important job. That isn’t the issue. The question is whether, as its own Annual Report claims, it is a “voluntary” agency. Inspection of its finances shows that it gets nearly 40 per cent of its funding from federal, state, and local governments. Its international program, as just noted, is dependent on the whim of government regulation. Even its fund-raising orientation has shifted. When it comes time to “fight back,” it does not seek voluntary donations, but organizes a political campaign to force taxpayers to fund its programs.

How does this loss of independence come about? “We were approached by the government,” one embarrassed PPFA staffer told me. Looking around at other organizations, it seems this is the typical pattern. In their eagerness to do good, politicians and administrators seek out healthy, appealing voluntary activities and turn them into government “programs.”

Take, for example, the ACTION agency. This governmental unit administers “The Domestic Volunteer Service Act of 1973.” in what sense, one wonders, are we talking about “voluntary” action? A government agency, funded by tax money, is administering an Act of Congress, a law backed by the enforcement powers of the United States Government.

Well, you say, at least the workers in the program are volunteers in the sense that they don’t get paid. Guess again. The “volunteers” in most of the programs are paid a wage, politely called a “stipend,” which typically runs to $2.20 per hour (tax free), along with other benefits.

Just how far we have strayed from the ideals of voluntarism was sharply demonstrated a few years ago when Senator Jesse Helms’ Agricultural Subcommittee on Nutrition held hearings on “Private Sector Initiatives to Feed America’s Poor.” The Senator called the hearing “to gather information on efforts being made by the private sector . . . in addressing the food needs of the poor.” But it turned out that the overwhelming majority of the wit nesses urged continuation and expansion of the federal government’s food programs. One even called on Congress to “legislate an end to hunger”!

Not Private at All

As they described their own “private sector initiatives,” it became clear that many were not private at all. Like the Planned Parenthood programs, they were extensions of government. For example, one minister from North Carolina explained the many governmental ties in his church’s programs: they depended on the county welfare office to certify the needy, they equipped their kitchen with a grant from the North Carolina Division of Aging, they ob-ruined a $580,000 loan from the Farmers Home Administration and another, for $2.5 million, from the Department of Housing and Urban Development, and so on.

Rather than being apologetic about taxpayer funding of his organization, the minister took credit for expanding governmental dependency. Near his city, he said, is “a rural, mountainous area where many people live below the poverty level. These people are poor, but they are also proud. Many of them would rather die of malnutrition than to accept the Government dole. Thus assistance must come to them in an acceptable form, one which honors their dignity and their personhood. The church is an ideal conduit for assistance . . . .”

Thus we see the “private sector” reducing itself to a front for government funding.

Some would say that such “public-private partnerships” are healthy, a creative adaptation to the welfare needs of the 1980s. But this view overlooks the distinctive character of truly private action. In private, voluntary groups, no one uses force to make anyone do anything. People join up and give money because they believe in the aims of the organization, because they have been persuaded to help. For idealists seeking to reduce the role of force in human affairs, voluntary organizations are the key to a brighter future with less coercion.

Government, by definition, involves the deployment of force. Government funds are collected not voluntarily but through coercion or the threat of coercion. It may be necessary to do things this way, at least under certain circumstances, but coercion can’t be considered a high-minded approach, nor the wave of a desirable future. Government is a tainted realm of things “belonging to Caesar.” Impoverished North Carolina hill folk understand this, and that is why they are chary of government welfare.

The leaders of private organizations need to face this awkward truth. At first glance, government can look like any other donor when it is offering funds. But one has to ask how it gets the money, and whether a “voluntary” organization ought to be a part of that system.