At the excellent Liberty & Power blog, historian David Beito has some very sharp comments on the ongoing controversy over Sen. Barack Obama's (D-Ill.) work as a community organizer. The trouble started last week at the Republican National Convention, when speakers including former New York Gov. George Pataki and former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani poked fun at Obama's grassroots efforts, contrasting them with the "actual" executive experience of Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin, who earned a big laugh with the following zinger: "I guess a small-town mayor is sort of like a community organizer, except that you have actual responsibilities."
Unsurprisingly, folks on the left weren't so amused. At The Nation, Peter Dreir and John Atlas lambasted Palin and company for their mockery, charging, "The party of Ronald Reagan was touting government experience over civic engagement."
According to Beito, however, whose book From Mutual Aid to the Welfare State offers a definitive history of American fraternal societies and the voluntary provision of social services, the truth is that none of the above are on the side of the angels:
Based on what I know, Obama's "community organizing" had little to do with helping people help themselves by pulling themselves up by their own bootstraps. It mostly consisted of a well-coordinated high-pressure campaign by paid "organizers" to force taxpayers to pay for services that should be provided voluntarily. That is not mutual aid, at least in the sense that Tocqueville understood it when he described how Americans formed voluntary associations to build hospitals, churches, and roads.
With some exceptions, community organizers of the Obama type run shakedown operations. True, they give people advice but the lesson taught is not so much to "help them help themselves" as it is to "help them help themselves to the wallets of taxpayers."
Unfortunately, Palin and Giuliani did not make this critique and, given their records and interests, this is not suprising. Instead of holding up the alternative of mutual aid and self-help, they offered no solution other than to defend the power of politicians like themselves who also spend their lives extracting money from defenseless taxpayers.