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Government domination corrupts volunteerism

The Presidents’ Summit for America’s Future that begins in Philadelphia this Sunday promises to provide prestigious encouragement for broad citizen volunteering, a worthy purpose, we can all agree.

But here’s a caveat that should, and possibly will not, be heard: Don’t let the government continue to invade–define, finance, direct–voluntary associations. We already are well down that path and it leads to corruption of the non-profit sector.

My Webster’s Collegiate dictionary describes a “volunteer” as “one who enters into or offers himself for service of his own free will” and who does so without having a “legal concern or interest.” The Judeo-Christian religious tradition and the philosophy of the Greeks understood that such freely given service is morally uplifting as well as materially helpful to civil society. Indeed, the voluntary spirit is at the heart of civil society. When people give their time to some social purpose at no cost, or at a steeply reduced cost, they genuinely ennoble the enterprise.

But when government establishes compulsory volunteerism–an Orwellian oxymoron if there ever was one–the moral basis of civil society is corrupted as surely as it is when politicians take bribes. Yet compulsory volunteerism is exactly what President Clinton endorsed in his recent radio address encouraging states to follow Maryland’s example and require all high school seniors to perform voluntary service as a condition of graduation.

Some good may come from parts of such a program, but service cannot logically be termed “voluntary” when it is coerced, any more than taxes can properly be called “gifts.” Children aren’t stupid and many quickly turn the compulsory service requirement into another game–a way to cheat the system. Like the old military draft, mandatory community service encourages at least as much cynicism as idealism.

Meanwhile, honorable kids who do real service on their own–and there are an estimated 2.9 million of them–sometimes refuse on principle to participate in these official programs and are persecuted by their schools. Lynn Steirer, one such student from Bethlehem, Pennsylvania’s ironically named Liberty High School, describes in the New York Times this week a conversation with a school official who urged her to play along. “After all, what is more important, your values or your diploma?”, he asked. Her values, she decided, and she did not graduate.

“Paid volunteers” is another corruption of the spirit of volunteerism. To establish a program like Americorps, as Mr. Clinton did, that costs taxpayers $30,000 a year per “volunteer” and pays each one well above the minimum wage–effectively, an average minimum wage of $7.27 per hour, plus medical benefits and free child care–obviously is no bargain for taxpayers. And, unlike traditional volunteer service, or the military or the Peace Corps, that require personal hardship or risk, it also is not true volunteerism.

White House staffers are ignoring these concerns, as well as the negative reports of Congressional investigators who have looked into Americorps. Instead, they are proposing to redesign and expand the program as “a new G.I. Bill,” costing untold billions. Harking back to the social engineering dream of psychologist William James at the turn of the century (who saw it as “the moral equivalent of war”) and the Vietnam era National Service ambitions of sociologist Margaret Mead and Defense Secretary Robert McNamara, the latest scheme again dangles before us the image of “all the good” that could be done if only we could round up America’s youth and submit them to some vast public purpose. Have we learned nothing from real war and from the unanticipated consequences of former “moral equivalents” the federal government foisted on us?

The latest models of mandatory and paid volunteering are flawed right to the core of their corps. They warp the motives of participants and trivialize genuine. They sidestep dealings with the majority of charitable programs in America that are religious-based, or else they force religious bodies to distort their original purpose to meet constitutional tests of church/state separation. Overall, they condition another generation to look to government as the proper arbiter of social worth.

Alexis de Tocqueville, whose 19th century book, Democracy in America, first alerted the world to America’s distinctive “voluntary associations” and the role they play in making our country great, undoubtedly will be quoted a lot in Philadelphia next week, and appropriately so. I just hope someone remembers to cite his warning about the danger of the government’s overwhelming these voluntary associations with its attentions.

“Once (government) leaves the sphere of politics to launch out on this new track, it will, even without intending this, exercise an intolerable tyranny,” de Tocqueville wrote. “For a government can only dictate precise rules. It imposes the sentiments and ideas which it favors, and it is never easy to tell the difference between its advice and its commands.”

That’s putting it charitably.

Bruce Chapman

Cofounder and Chairman of the Board of Discovery Institute
Bruce Chapman has had a long career in American politics and public policy at the city, state, national, and international levels. Elected to the Seattle City Council and as Washington State's Secretary of State, he also served in several leadership posts in the Reagan administration, including ambassador. In 1991, he founded the public policy think tank Discovery Institute, where he currently serves as Chairman of the Board and director of the Chapman Center on Citizen Leadership.