October 8, 2015 | Commentary on Civil Society, Political Thought

Should we compel volunteerism?


Volunteering our time and donating money to moral causes is part of America’s DNA. The history of volunteering in America is very old, well-established and more developed than in almost any other country. Americans volunteered 7.7 billion hours in 2013 and donated $358 billion to charity in 2014.

Why then would we want to make volunteering mandatory by instituting a yearlong national service program? Is it to develop qualities of character in the volunteers? Is it to render actual services? Is it for social transformation and change?

The goal of developing character is a worthy end, but assigning that task to the national government is to misunderstand America. Much of America’s energetic willingness to do good stems from the voluntary nature of our actions. Leave Americans alone, and we will do wonders: We will organize ourselves, found voluntary associations, and govern our neighborhoods, schools and states. Leaving us alone often means merely removing barriers to us doing good.

Moreover, among the most salutary aspects of volunteering is the demonstration given to those in need that their fates are not a matter of indifference to neighbors. Those receiving voluntary assistance learn that human goodness is not mercenary — it is neither purchasable nor done on account of compulsion.

Such voluntary goodness can be genuinely touching and moving, filling the recipient with gratitude rather than resentment or the expectation for more. Cultivating generous sentiments also encourages recipients to help others in turn, creating mutual sentiments of generosity.

Besides undercutting these motives, mandatory service risks increasing dependency in those receiving assistance. The needy will have fewer enticements to exit their circumstances through individual industry, and may learn to count on the throngs of volunteers — arriving with limitless federal funding — for perpetual support. On this point, we should follow Benjamin Franklin’s observation that “the best way of doing good to the poor is not making them easy in poverty, but leading or driving them out of it.”

Such programs as the one proposed may give the appearance of promoting charity but may in reality generate nearly its opposite: moralistic showiness disguised as concern, combined with likely harm to recipients and volunteers.

Moreover, the moral problems coming from the proposed program are relatively easy to foresee. Morality will become state sanction in predictable ways: religious motives will be denied, while new-age social justice doctrines will be enforced.

The state will thereby expand its sphere of tacit propaganda, not merely through films and leaflets — though those will abound — but by sanctioning some causes as genuinely just and worthy, while naming others illegitimate, and thereby diminishing their respectably. All volunteers will be made to honor choosing one's own gender; none will think saving souls is relevant.

Alexis de Tocqueville, the greatest commentator on America, explains that laws should aim at bolstering the virtues and diminishing the natural vices of a particular regime. In this vein, perhaps the proposed policy is worth considering in countries where citizens mistrust one another and rely on the state for nearly all social services, having grown incapable of ruling themselves.

In America, however, where a long, thriving tradition of assisting one another exists but where these same habits of character may grow weak, the greatest attention should be paid to encouraging this kind of behavior — without forcing it.

Volunteering should be publicly extolled and praised. Future presidents, for example, should devote their public speeches to creating reverence for volunteering, rather than attacking the Little Sisters of the Poor for holding fast to their faith. The classes imitated by other classes should engage in volunteering publicly. Parents should teach their kids to revere these habits, persuading them to spend their summers doing this, rather than playing video games.

In democratic times when it seems as though the only real power in the world is the state, every effort should be made to show that individuals, through freely chosen good motives, can on their own create changes. Volunteering is a way of reassuring citizens that the lives of their neighbors are in their hands. This breeds public spiritedness, social trust and the belief in a common fate — the prerequisites to self-government.

-Milikh is the assistant director of the B. Kenneth Simon Center for Principles and Politics at the Heritage Foundation.

About the Author

Arthur Milikh Associate Director, B. Kenneth Simon Center for Principles and Politics
B. Kenneth Simon Center for Principles and Politics

This piece originally appeared in The Atlanta Journal Constitution