Does Declining Volunteerism Mean We Need National Service? Only If You Don't Count Money


Yeah, I don't get it either. |||

Washington Post columnist Dana Milbank has a piece today I've seen retweeted a lot, making the following sextuple-jump of logic:

1) Like a lot of slacktivists, Milbank did his patriotic duty in watching The Interview.

2) Effort-free slacktivism is kinda lame.

3) This is George W. Bush's fault, for not raising taxes during war.

4) According to a couple of studies, Americans are volunteering less.

5) That's because we abolished the draft, dammit!

6) So let's expand National Service tenfold.

Milbank adds: "there's hope in the form of the would-be presidential and vice presidential candidates. Hillary Clinton, Jeb Bush, Mitt Romney, Marco Rubio and Rob Portman have all expressed interest in the issue." So they've got that going for them.

Rather than rehash Reason's (and my) arguments against the perennial political temptation of National Service, let's start with a chart, then a parable. First the delicious numbers, this time not of hours volunteered, but of monies donated to charity:

||| Giving USA Foundation
Giving USA Foundation

Not only is that trend line impressive (see a bigger breakdown of the numbers here), it calls into question the very premise of Milbank's argument. Which is to say, if volunteer-hours are going down but charitable giving is going up, do we even have a crisis of community-spiritedness? After the jump, a real-world parable on the subject, involving New York public schools, vacuum cleaners, and political correctness.

How 'bout I serve up a check instead? And send it to who I want! |||

So, last year at our (terrific) local public school, the teacher put out a call to parents, asking them to volunteer to come clean up our kid's classroom after hours. Seems that the Zamboni-sized vacuum cleaners used by the janitorial staff wouldn't fit through the door, and the teacher didn't feel like she should be doing maid service. So, naturally, we were all, "Let's buy 'em a Roomba!" And the answer came that, well, there had already been a (non-robotic) vacuum cleaner bought recently, so that wouldn't be appropriate. Fine, we said, let's buy a cleaning service. Well, you see, ah, so, this would be sending the wrong message about our values.

The result: We ended up "volunteering" my wife's expensive but more flexible time in doing drudge work that should have been handled by someone else, instead of simply mailing off a check to fix the problem with our earnings. Was America better served because she was on her hands and knees, scrubbing dust and grime out of a classroom, rather than paying for a professional to do the trick while she got back to work? According to Milbank's parameters, yes. According to mine, oh hell no.

As it happens, probably like a lot of Americans, over time our charitable giving has gone up substantially, while our hours volunteered are probably on net lower, even with the increases for school/kid-related stuff. That's because in the great Division of Labor called life, this actually makes sense if you think about it even for one minute. If you are fortunate enough to be able to increase your earnings as you get older (especially when you have some mouths to feed and plan for), you spend your time doing just that, then sending off checks to charitable organizations you have confidence will spend some of the excess wisely. Meanwhile, volunteering and networking are actually pretty valuable ways for starving freelancers (to name one category of non-richies I have familiarity with) to spend their otherwise not-very-well-remunerated time.

Long story short, if you are going to make the consequentialist argument that declining volunteerism requires more tax money to be conscripted for "National Service," you should probably explain why you care more about volunteering labor than volunteering hard-earned cash. You may also want to compare international rates of both, and ask why America so consistently (if contestably) leads the world, even over countries that until very recently have had—wait for it!—national service. Though it's true that doing so will require almost as much effort as watching The Interview.