Selected Skirmishes: Volunteering for Duty

Mission creep permeates the Summit for America's Future.


Dear Gen. Powell:

Your leadership of the president's summit on volunteerism has prompted me to jot a note. While this is not an "official" fan letter, please be assured that I was among those who thought the Republicans were pinheads for not begging you to head their ticket in 1996.

I do not begrudge the fact that your volunteer work is limited to one day a week, leaving the rest for speech making to the tune of $70,000 to $100,000 per appearance. I would be the last person in America to criticize a man for making the most of the honest opportunities before him.

Nor do I question your motives in assuming such a high-profile position, even though cynics note that such publicity maintains your value as a commodity. Since when has a good deed had to be sacrificial to be moral?

The problem, Gen. Powell, is how you define your mission. The summit was not really about solving the problems of at-risk kids. Indeed, you inadvertently let us in on the subtext. "I don't want chairmen and CEOs to give more money," you said. "I really want them to take on the personal commitment." Since the whole point of focusing on CEOs is that they have economic means the rest of us lack, the high-school pep-rally preference for "getting involved" kinda blows the whole deal. The at-risk kids presumably care about the money–not about making senior executives proud of their sacrifice.

No one doubts the good feelings that accompany personal commitment–whether to the Nature Conservancy, Amnesty International, or the Community Preparatory School in Providence, Rhode Island. Indeed, most Americans are doubly lucky in this regard: We have the means to help out, and we can choose from a smorgasbord of voluntary charitable associations. Yet it is mistaken to neatly subdivide our social life into the Worthy and the Greedy.

Charity often turns out to be mostly about people doing well while purporting to do good. Hollywood celebs negotiate cause endorsements for their publicity value; Arianna Huffington trumpets "effective compassion" after blowing $30 million in community property on her husband's U.S. Senate campaign; President Clinton lectures Americans on charitable works even though, as governor of Arkansas, he deducted a couple of bucks for each pair of used undies he sent to Goodwill. The word temerity comes to mind.

But the big shots are not alone, as it typically takes some personal payoff to get the charity ball rolling. Out in suburbia, the proliferation of walks, runs, and crawls for this cause or that entails a huge waste of resources: If similar calories were expended in simple money-making endeavors, the cash could be donated directly to breast cancer research or AIDS prevention, and do way more. Sadly, that's what it takes to get people (like me) to participate. The same goes for the traditional charity gala (many of which I attend–and, unlike the president, pay my way to every year): It is considered a success when more than half the gross (after deducting the cost of food and entertainment) goes to the cause. If everyone stayed put and sent the Children's Home their full donation, the kids would reap far more benefit. But without the glittery ball, we'd be a lot less likely to care about the children.

My point, Gen. Powell, is not that this makes social crusaders phony or bad people. Quite the reverse: Human action is inevitably an amalgam of acquisitiveness and high purpose. One fellow may work long hours to pay for his mother's surgery; another may volunteer to organize a church picnic just to meet girls. If we focus too fastidiously on public motives, we tend to forget all about results. Indeed, your summit emitted the faint scent of moral superiority, and you yourself declared that doing something was superior to achieving something. I am not surprised that the Philadelphia summit–where Al Gore wrestled with Nancy Reagan for mike time–inspired vapid analysis of the sort Newsweek headlined: "Can Need Trump Greed?"

The most succinct summit critique was rendered inadvertantly by the Rev. Jesse Jackson. He allowed that it was OK to talk up personal commitments to help out, but admonished that volunteers were never going to "equip classrooms in poor neighborhoods with computers or create decently paid jobs." He's absolutely correct.

The dynamism of unbridled marketplace competition is what it took to create the very computer that we want to pop into that poor kid's classroom. The processing power of a football-field-sized Honeywell, circa 1969, is now contained in the $699 desktop Pentium. Relentless profit-seeking has made this capitalist tool astoundingly cheap and available to the multitudes.

Purer motives in the U.S. economy? Not a likely explanation for the opportunities it creates for people, including the poor and downtrodden from so many Third World regimes who hatch ingenious schemes to sneak into America's fields and factories. Can need trump greed? Maybe not on the stage with the balloons and the politicians in Philly, but out in those cold quadrants of the for-profit sector, the needy and the greedy are climbing mountains together. That's the volunteerism that doesn't need a pep rally to start off its day. And it's the victory campaign that a brave old patriot like Colin Powell should be proud to salute.


Thomas W. Hazlett

Contributing Editor Thomas W. Hazlett (hazlett@primal.ucdavis.edu) teaches economics and public policy at the University of California at Davis.