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Who Needs Government?

What’s right and what’s wrong with Libertarians’ vision of a volunteer society

From OTC’s free new e-book Celebrating the Commons: People, Ideas and Stories for a New Year. It’s updated from a campaign season blog on OTC last year.

Libertarians, the Tea Party and other so-called conservatives devoted to slashing all government spending not related to the military, prisons, the drug war 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 an attractive idea, which evokes the spirit of the commons. Volunteers working largely outside the realm of government—neighborhood organizations, local fire brigades, blood banks and other civic initiatives—are obvious examples of commons-based sharing and caring.

So that means John Boehner, Paul Ryan and Sean Hannity qualify as commoners, too, despite their adamant skepticism about Medicaid, environmental regulations and campaign finance limits?

Not so fast! Volunteerism never rises above a convenient smoke- screen, which right-of-center politicians use to justify shredding the social safety net. Increased support for the people and institutions that help the poor and the sick, strengthen our communities, 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 the right-wing blueprint for our future. Most Republicans are a lot of talk, and but very little action when it comes to actually supporting the kind of cooperative efforts that make a better world.

Theoretically you could imagine a classical conservative model of a commons-based society based upon strong incentives for everyday citizens to fill the void of services now provided by federal, state and local governments—everything from police protection to basic scientific research to the Public Health Service. To actually create such a society, however, would mean some sweeping changes to current economic and social policies that today’s right-wing proponents would never tolerate.

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 looks impossible.

Here are three ways we could create a strong society based on America’s great tradition of volunteerism.

*Dramatically expanded vacation time, family-leave benefits and probably a four-day workweek—- along with stringent enforcement of overtime provisions for all people working more than 40 hours a week.

*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. And 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 era now, it’s likely that many couples today would elect to both work half time. But any way you want to do it, this would trigger a volcanic eruption of volunteers.

*Most important of all would be enacting a Canadian-style health care system and a big boost in the minimum wage so that Americans would not need to devote all their time and energy to paid work.

There’s no way political leaders today who call themselves conservative these days would stand for any of the ideas laid out in the previous three paragraphs—although some of the people who vote for them might, including evangelicals, traditionalist Catholics and “conservatives” who are actually in favor of preserving community values rather than sacrificing them in the name of exponentially expanding corporate profits.

Mitch McConnell, Michelle Bachmann, and many Democrats too, would recoil at these ideas because they would 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 hard and play by the rules.”

These kind of pro-volunteer, pro-commons policies also depend on government playing an important role: Enforcing new vacation, family leave, work hours and minimum wage laws, as well as making sure everyone has adequate health care coverage.

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 in light of new evidence from many 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 they naively believe that volunteers will magically appear with no provisions to stop unscrupulous employers from stealing a huge share of people’s time with low wages and stingy vacations policies, so that people they have no time left over for the common good.