The Tea Party, libertarians and other so-called conservatives devoted to slashing all government spending not related to the military, prisons and highways have an easy answer when asked what happens to people whose lives and livelihoods depend on public programs. They point to volunteerism—the tradition of people taking care of each other which has sustained human civilization for millennia.
It’s a compelling idea, which evokes the spirit of the commons (the growing movement to protect and expand the whole sphere of cultural and economic assets belonging to all of us together). Volunteers working largely outside the realm of government—neighborhood organizations, fire brigades, blood banks and other civic initiatives—are obvious examples of commons-based sharing and caring.
So that means Ron Paul, Michelle Bachmann and Mitt Romney qualify as commoners (people working to improve the state of our commons)? Even with their adamant skepticism about Medicare, environmental regulations and campaign finance limits?
Not so fast! Volunteerism never rises above a convenient smokescreen, which right-of-center politicians use to justify shredding the social safety net. Increased support for the people and institutions that strengthen our communities, help the poor and the sick, protect the environment and generally make America a kinder and gentler place (to quote the most ardent proponent of volunteerism, George H.W. Bush) never make the final cut in right-wing blueprints for our future. Republicans (and too many Democrats) are all talk and no action when it comes to actually supporting the kind of cooperative efforts that make volunteerism work.
Theoretically you could imagine a classical conservative model of a commons-based society based upon strong incentives for everyday citizens to handle most of the services now provided by federal, state and local governments—everything from police protection to basic scientific research to the Public Health Service. (Although when you apply this model to the world we live in today, it’s hard to believe the dream of mutual aid could survive the juggernaut of corporate privatization without some kind of government intervention.) Creating such a society, however, would mean sweeping changes to current economic and social policies that today’s right-wing leaders would never tolerate.
For Volunteerism to Work, Everyone Needs More Free Time
To truly encourage widespread volunteerism, we’d need to make sure that everyone (not just the well-to-do) had the time to do it. Most people today, working longer hours for less pay, are frantic just to get through the day. Finding extra time in their crunched schedules to manage upkeep at the local park or take care of elderly neighbors feels impossible.
What it would take to make this happen is dramatically expanded vacation time, family-leave benefits and probably a four-day workweek—or at least stringent enforcement of overtime provisions for all people working more than 40 hours a week.
Even more important to boosting volunteerism would be a return to the days of the family wage—the period before the 1970s when a middle-class household could get by on one worker’s wages. This would trigger a wave of volunteerism that could change the face of America. The first step in making this happen would be enacting a Canadian-style health care systems and tripling the minimum wage. But unlike the days before the 1970s, minorities and low-wage workers would not be excluded from this social contract. And since we live in a different social era now, it’s likely that many couples would elect to both work half time.
I cannot imagine that political leaders who call themselves conservative would stand for any of the ideas laid out in the previous two paragraphs—although some of the people who vote for them might, including evangelicals, traditionalist Catholics and “conservatives” who are actually in favor of “conserving” natural resources and community values rather than sacrificing them in the name of exponentially expanding corporate profits.
Bachmann, Paul, Romney and many Democrats would recoil at these ideas because they shift the balance of power in society from the wealthy who finance their campaigns to the poor and middle-class who, in the famous words of Bill Clinton, “work had and play by the rules.” These pro-volunteer, pro-commons policies would also be unpopular with conservatives because they depend on government playing an important role: Enforcing the new vacation, family leave, work hours and minimum wage laws, as well as making sure everyone has adequate health coverage and access.
Politicians and pundits on the right often accuse progressives of being naïve about human nature for not recognizing the true motives that drive people’s behavior. That’s debatable, especially in light of new evidence from many scientific fields that our cooperative instincts are stronger than our selfish ones.
But we certainly have a case of the pot calling the kettle black right here: conservatives laud volunteerism as the best way to maintain our social fabric yet naively believe that this will happen with no provisions to stop unscrupulous employers from stealing people’s time with low wages and stingy vacations policies so that they have almost no time left over to nurture the common good.