Free markets and volunteerism

By Dennis Rice
web posted June 1999

When I was in my local doctor's office recently, I noticed a sign on the bulletin board asking for volunteers who would like to help out local senior citizens, either visiting with them, preparing meals, or running errands for them. I wondered just how many libertarians and other advocates of free markets would care to offer their help for such tasks. The answer, I thought, was not many. As a grouping of rugged individualists, we seem prone to ignore these activities as something for "someone else" to do, hoping that, as the welfare state is cut back, "someone else" will freely give up their time and help out the needy. While I'm sure some readers might bristle at this statement, I simply don't see much evidence of libertarians engaging in a lot of volunteer activities. At the same time, many advocates of a market economy wonder why their ideology, which seems so logical and sensible to them, is gaining support at a snail's pace. Perhaps this attitude towards voluntary assistance is part of the problem.

If we look at more popular organizations, ones which have significant influence in our culture and large followings, we can see the importance assigned by these institutions to voluntary assistance. Religious organizations seem particularly aggressive at setting up and funding all sorts of mechanisms for giving assistance to the poor. Non-religious public service and community groups have joined in this effort as well. It has become apparent to me that these groups enjoy the support of the general public because they are perceived to be performing highly valued tasks.

Since life is not one big emergency, libertarians are often quick to dismiss the volunteer sector as largely a waste of time, and regard the virtue of benevolence as a minor issue. After all, for the vast majority of people, one's well-being is not constantly under threat and we are not one step away from living in a cardboard box under a bridge. While this is undeniably true, the fact is that most people desire a sense of assurance that, on the off chance that disaster will strike their lives, some organization will be there to assist them, as sort of a voluntary safety net. Most people see such an attitude not as a sign of personal weakness on their part, but as a legitimate, necessary desire. Religious organizations are adept at capitalizing on these sentiments. They offer not just philosophical guidance on such matters, but translate their words into action by setting up relief mechanisms which actually deliver aid in person, should it be needed. A strategy like this helps to build an important component of trust between the public and these organizations. Consequently, church groups continue to attract legion of people to their flocks, while libertarians manage to get handfuls. Not only that, but when churches speak to important issues of the day they usually gain immediate and substantial attention, giving them tremendous influence on public policy.

While working in soup kitchens and homeless shelters is undeniably depressing for many people, less dire volunteer activities do exist, such as serving on local boards and committees which oversee recreational and community facilities. Work of this kind may not grab a lot of headlines, but its importance is nonetheless highly regarded. Since I began taking a leadership role at my local community club, first as secretary of the local curling rink and later as chairman of the committee that oversees the operations of the hockey rink, my standing in the community has greatly increased. I am more visible and better-known than I was in the past. Most local citizens, I believe, have come to the conclusion that I was a competent and capable committee chairman, whose judgement on broad issues can be trusted.

This kind of public exposure could be of tremendous benefit to friends of liberty and free markets. When you establish a proven track record of competence, even when it only deals with what might be considered mundane issues like running a hockey rink, the average citizen is more likely to carefully consider your controversial views on the workings of the free market, rather than dismiss them outright as the musings of a little-known recluse.

It is critical, of course, to distinguish between voluntary, community-oriented service that is decidedly non-sacrificial and service which sacrifices your career, monetary well-being or the needs of your immediate family for the sake of the community. A gifted physicist who spends a few hours a week coaching his kid's hockey team is certainly not engaging in sacrificial behaviour. If, on the other hand, the coaching duties became a positive obsession, resulting in that person taking significant amounts of time off work, perhaps to the extent of being fired, this would not only be a tremendous mistake on the part of the physicist, but would also deprive the world of what could be significant, life-enhancing scientific advances.

I can certainly appreciate the argument that a highly skilled industrialist or an engineer is better off spending all of his waking hours on his work, rather than devoting even a small portion of his time to volunteer activities or charitable organizations. After all, the greater his achievements, the greater the progress of mankind. But to the extent that such a person possesses at least some spare time, it would not be a horrible waste to devote part of it to charitable works.

While libertarians have made tremendous advances in the fight for freedom and free markets, we still have a lot of bridge-building to do before we can consider ourselves victorious. Long term success will be achieved by promoting the moral foundations of a market economy, a task whose importance cannot be underestimated. As we theorize, however, we also have to keep in mind the importance of putting our money where our mouths are, so to speak, and leading by example. We have to demonstrate, in concrete, practical terms, how a society of voluntary, peaceful cooperation not only enables mankind to achieve tremendous heights in science, production and trade, but how it also serves to provide the best possible life for those who, for reasons often beyond their control, are not able to achieve these same heights. When we have reached that goal, we can finally lay the coercive welfare state to rest for good. We will have convinced the citizenry with our actions and words that the welfare state lacks not only moral justification but serves no practical purpose either.

Dennis Rice is a writer living near Winnipeg, Canada and the leader of the Libertarian Party of Manitoba.


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