Putting Voluntarism to the Test

Putting “Voluntarism” to the Test

Ever hear of a fifteen dollar an hour volunteer? The General Accounting Office has released an audit of AmeriCorps and reports that the cost per “volunteer” is between $26,000 and $31,500 a year, which works out to be pretty good pay at taxpayers' expense.

Yet when the congressional leadership called for its defunding last winter, the Clinton-created Corporation for National Service promised that volunteers would cost only $6.43 per hour, or $17,600 a year. At the time, the Democrats accused Republicans of driving a stake through the heart of “voluntarism.”

It's an odd use of the term. Consider how Americorps works. For a year after high school, enrollees work under the supervision of the federal government that often reflects political priorities. In exchange, they receive a healthy stipend and a $4,700 voucher for college education. Last year, business boomed, with thousands turned away after 20,000 slots were filled.

The program's supporters defend it as a means of letting young people serve their country, just as previous generations have served in the armed forces. Detractors claim the program will lead to coerced national service and should be eliminated. The argument turns on the meaning and moral status of “voluntarism” itself.

One view of voluntarism is that it is uncompensated labor. People volunteer at a soup kitchen or in local service clubs. Well, by that definition, Americorps is not voluntary. Eliminate the incentives of the stipend and the education voucher, and then we'll discover just how “voluntary” the program is.

Let's try another notion of “voluntarism”: doing something because of benevolent personal desire. Many Americorps workers signed on out of good will. But this does not set them apart from other workers. Most entrepreneurs love their work. They also desire the happiness of others. They try to give people something they want, whether it is a good meal, quality clothing, sturdy housing, or reliable letter delivery. Somehow, though, capitalist acts are not supposed to qualify as “voluntary” in this sense.

Let's try another view of “voluntarism”: anything that is not coerced. In a market economy, the jobs of just about everyone pass this test. No one is forced to take a job. Capitalists could quit investing, bankers could quit lending, and workers stop working at any time. Most people face an array of alternatives of how to use their talents in the market.

Pilots, cooks, computer programmers, and editors of magazines all “volunteer their time” because they could be doing something else. They have chosen to support themselves and perhaps their families by serving others. Furthermore, the very existence of our social safety net means workers in America volunteer to be responsible people, to earn a living by the sweat of the brow.

All trade in a market economy is voluntary and mutually beneficial. When the supermarket sells a carton of milk for $2, it is signaling that the money is worth more to the business than the milk. The consumer is signaling the inverse: He or she values the milk more than the $2 given up. Thus both parties end up benefiting from the transaction.

Why should these - activities buying, selling, working, investing - be intellectually and politically separated as inferior to devoting a year to Americorps? And why should a national service program be uniquely entitled to the designation of “volunteerism?” The only trait of Americorps that distinguishes it from charity, jobs, or entrepreneurship in the private sector is that it is sponsored and run by government. This seems to be the message of Americorps: You're not really working for the social good unless you are working under government guidance.

And this is what is most disturbing about Americorps. It teaches young people a false notion about trade: working for a business, for profit, is somehow ignoble. “I like helping people,” one Americorps “volunteer” sniffed at a reporter. “Is there something weird about that?”

No. It's only weird to think that most other people are not doing the same. Bill Gates serves the consuming public by bringing us efficient technology that makes our lives easier. He wouldn't be successful if he weren't helping people. Indeed, helping others is not just the prerogative of the rich. Grocers in some cities risk life and limb to serve the public. But somehow they are denied the hero status that an Americorp “volunteer” is granted.

Noble intentions aside, Americorps forcibly siphons money from the public through taxation. Every Americorps volunteer costs the taxpayers a hefty sum. The government taxes the people of Kansas to pay volunteers to clean mountain trails in New Hampshire. Even worse, Americorps volunteers are encouraged to think that working for government means they are doing something more important than other wage earners.

Idealism led me to the priesthood. Another sort of idealism leads people to the business world. Here's some advice to young idealists: If serving others is what you desire, don't be bought off by a government program. Try something voluntary that is personally challenging, socially beneficial, and doesn't cost the taxpayers one dime.