09 July 2008

Compulsory Voluteering

McQ asks if various plans being floated by our illustrious candidates to require citizens to do volunteer work bother anyone but him. Accepting and ignoring that this is just a rhetorical convenience and not an actual question, allow me to answer in the affirmative. This bothers me a good deal.

First of all, these plans all amount to what Paul Thornton wisely labeled "generational welfare." Such plans are based on requiring service by teenagers or college students, presumably because they're all worthless young punks who wear baggy pants and listen to loud music all day, instead of pulling their weight (uphill both ways) like youngsters did back in the good old days.

I'm still waiting for the plan that requires volunteering* from able bodied retirees as a condition of receiving their social security checks, or requires a few hours a week of service from anyone getting unemployment benefits. This will never happen, of course, because it's clearly those rascally youths — who, by the way, probably need a hair cut and should definitely get off of our lawns — who are best suited for work without pay. Let them make the world a better place. We have better things to be doing.

I went to three different schools with some community service requirements, and there were some common themes amongst all three programs. One common occurrence is that people just found a sympathetic authority figure to sign off on wildly inflated numbers of hours served. This happened for almost everybody, even the people who did orders of magnitude more service than needed, because it's easier to get one person to sign one letter stating that you've put in 50 hours under their watchful eye, then get four different letters from four people each attesting to the 15 hours you actually did with each of them. At one school it was common to see fliers in the hallway promising multiple hours of service credits for less than an hour of time served.

Then when people start to complain about the laxness of enforcement somebody at the top occasionally clamps down and compiles a short list of trusted and verified programs, and decrees that only service to such programs will be accepted. This puts them in the position of having to (getting to?) be the arbiter of what counts as true service to the community and what doesn't. Inevitably squabbles erupt, there are charges of favoritism, classism, sometimes racism, various other -isms, and eventually the system collapses in upon itself under the onslaught of petulant groups wanting free labor in the form of community service, and the bureaucratic overhead of approving a bunch of waivers for non white-listed activities.

Now, it's bad enough when the school principal gets to start deciding that working at the school art fair "counts" but working at the co-located fashion show does not. But do you really want the Department of Community Service deciding what benefits the community and what doesn't? What happens when the Miscellaneous Catholic Order of Abortion Opposition gets approved but Assorted Christians Working for Just War isn't? Or the Suburban String Quartet bake sale is ruled acceptable but the Urban Drum Line raffle isn't? Do you want these kinds of decisions being made by a political appointee? What happens when they make the "wrong" decision?

Which brings us to a wider point, which is that I do not like the idea of service to the nation or to the community being equivocated with service to the government or through the government. Putting aside the specifics of which services will count, I don't want the State adjudicating what helps society in general. I don't need Fearless Leader directing brigades of Citizen Junior Workers to enact his Grand Vision. The State already spends enough of my money telling me that they know better than I do how I should be spending the rest of my money and my time. I don't want to put great swaths of extra time at their disposal to start deciding what should be done with it. The less labor, and fruits of labor, central planners have to work with, the better.

Finally, I can't help but think these plans also feed off the perniciousness of the same anti-profit sentiments discussed by Roberts and Munger on this week's EconTalk. There's a common disposition in a large swaths of society that making a profit on something is greedy, conducting commerce is crass and that if you're making money then someone, somewhere, must be loosing money. This Bobo, zero-sum, anti-Protestant-work-ethic is the second pillar of this drive for national servitude, along with the aforementioned ageism. Put politely, this view is fallacious. Put more directly, I have seen more cogent points of view encapsulated in the Tupperware containers that have been pushed to the back of my fridge and left to fester for weeks.

I tutored a lot in a my senior year of high school. I worked one-on-one with a kid with some learning disabilities on some remedial math, basic study skills, what have you. Tried to help with some socialization problems he was having. That's pretty fine service to the community, you might say. Truly, I was helping the less fortunate, right?

Not so fast. I was making $20 an hour doing all this. (In cash, too! No taxes!) Is that still "community service?" Almost everyone would say no, of course not you capitalist lout, you got paid. Okay, let me put it another way. Was that work making the community a better place? I argue it was. A member of said community was willing to part with some of their wealth in order to see it happen, so to them, I was improving the community. What ever consumer surplus existed in my tutoring transaction is a community service. And since there is no collective democratic consciousness deciding what counts as improvement and what doesn't, and all we have (or should have) are individual decisions and peaceful arrangements between consenting parties, I argue that's as close to serving the community as anything else.

So my advice to all the potential servitors is to forget the volunteering, and get a job, sir. Deliver a paper. Mow a lawn. Paint a house. Sling some fries. Forget about asking what you can do for your country, and start asking what you can do for another individual. Maybe they want to compensate you for it, maybe they don't. That's between you and them, and that kind of individual, private transaction is what really improves society, not "national service" or "community-based experiential learning" or "moon shots" or five year plans. Tell McCain, and Obama, and "the community" they can all go screw.

* We'll ignore for the rest of the post the readily apparent absurdity of involuntary volunteer service, as the inconsistency of the concept should be immediately apparent to the reader. And before anyone begins to object that some plans don't require participation per se, but rather make it a condition of something like a tuition discount, perish the thought. This is no longer volunteer service, it's just routine work for hire, except the pay does not come from the employer and is not given in cash.

NB: I have a second post on this topic here, if interested.


  1. It might be a better idea to require that all public high school students must have a job. The job must pay at least minimum wage, a proper 1099 must be filed, and some minimum number of hours must be recorded - perhaps 250, which most students could knock out in a couple months part-time.

    There are undoubtedly some problems with this (I own my own business, and could easily just hire my children to do their usual household chores at minimal expense - filing the 1099 would just mean my kids have to file taxes for their allowance), but for the vast majority of students, this would encourage them to develop some workplace skills.

  2. Good post. I also have great qualms about compulsory "volunteering," and not just because of the linguistic perversity of the phrase.

    For one, I am deeply skeptical of all kinds of government compulsion, except that we be compelled to leave others alone. Compelling us to not leave others alone? Where exactly does one draw a bright line on that slope?

    Second is another point you made, that the authority figures then get to decide which community service is legitimate. My grad school advisor told me that his political science department used to use but political involvement as part of its tenure decisions. Then someone asked what they would do if a faculty member joined the KKK or American Nazi Party? Wisely, they dropped political activity as a factor affecting tenure.

  3. $20 per hour to help kids with math? I was only asking for $10/hour. Perhaps I should have asked for a bit more...

  4. And for others doing community service is like driving a Prius (listen to an earlier Munger-Roberts podcast for the reference).

    Well said.

  5. Wonderful post about a truly idiotic idea.

    As I was reading it, I remember when I could work as a part-timer, in my teens, and not have to fill out any tedious forms, nor have my background checked to see if I was legal, from Mars or a bunch of other asinine things. I moved boxes and was paid in cash. I don't remember any minimum wage discussions, either, I was given an offer, I took it, I worked, they paid.

    Seemed kind of simple and easy.

    Now, it would probably be all criminal. I AM an old codger!

  6. you nailed it superbly - thanks for sharing

  7. Doing this to teens and young adults still in school is bad enough. Doing it to adult corporate employees is even worse.

    I once worked for a major executive recruiting firm (at the time, the world's largest) where it was made abundantly clear to middle management on down that unless we contributed either significant money or significant time (preferably both) to their annual United Way campaign, we could expect a pink slip in that Christmas envelope instead of a bonus.

    Naturally, the firm set records for its city every year, with all the free "humanitarian" PR that implied, and consequent lavish compensation increases to our VPs on up decreed by the multinational parent company.

    Thus were the already-multimillion-dollar pockets of the fat cats lined still further, on the backs of middle-managers' salaries, hourly workers' wages, and time we "ordinary folks" really couldn't afford to spend away from our families.

    I'm a fervent minarchist, but in cases like this "there oughtta be a law!"

  8. Oh man, this made me puke in my mouth. Here in Grand Rapids, we had a member of our own city commission actually suggest forced volunteerism this past spring while the city was deliberating on how to go about dealing with all the pot holes.

    Socialism is catching on.

  9. Well said sir!

    The very idea is repulsive. Sure go ahead and hand me that shovel to do my "compulsory volunteering" cleaning up a roadway. I'll be happy to clobber you over the back of the head with it Blazing Saddles sytle.