Voluntarism, Voluntaryism, and Libertarianism

Voluntarism is a relatively new perspective within the array of visions found among liberty-oriented activists. It shares many of the basic beliefs of these activists, but differs in emphasis and tactics. All three schools, voluntarism, voluntaryism, and libertarianism agree that the great expansion of the state has been a mistake, and that the trend toward greater dependence on government needs to be reversed. The question is, what should be done?

Most activists give one of two answers to this question. One is “politics.” They seek to become involved in elections or in government policymaking and work to adopt policies that limit the role of government in different areas.  The second answer is “education.” These activists focus on persuading people to understand and adopt the limited government view—through speeches, publications, seminars, and think tanks. Both activities are valuable, but there needs to be a third leg of this campaign: fostering the problem-solving institutions that stand as the alternative to government. This is the role of voluntarism with its mission of supporting voluntary organizations.[1]

The Strategy of Voluntarism

Voluntarism addresses four specific needs where reform is necessary:

1. Countering the illusion of government preeminence

The appeal of government rests heavily on the perception that government is society’s only problem-solver.

Most people are quite skeptical about government these days, and feel that most politicians are shallow and irresponsible. They know government bureaucracies are wasteful. They know that government programs often fail or make the problem worse. But when you urge them to turn away from government they say, “What else is there?” Until you can point to a credible alternative problem-solving system, people will keep turning to government.[2]

A universe of millions of voluntary groups is an alternative problem-solving system. This sector can and does address practically every problem government tries to address, including health, education, poverty, unemployment, research, support for arts, counseling, drug rehabilitation, environmental improvement—even global warming. Unfortunately, this sector is not perceived as a problem-solving system. Even hard-working, idealistic activists in voluntary groups will say that government is the real problem-solving system in society. They are volunteers who don’t believe in—haven’t even recognized—voluntarism as a problem-solving system.

To counter the growth of big government, the public and politicians need to be made continuously aware of the voluntary sector as a national problem-solving system. Further, voluntary organizations need to be effective, efficient, well-governed, and well-motivated. After all, if you point to the voluntary sector as the alternative, and the public sees ineffective or corrupt organizations, people will say, “See, I told you government is the only solution.” Therefore, voluntarism not only points out the importance of voluntary organizations but it also labors to improve them.

2. Providing an outlet for altruism.

Most people want to improve the world, and they believe that altruism is essential to a civilized society.  Government is today seen as the idealistic agency that takes care of community needs that cannot be sustained on a strict commercial basis. Government is supposed to handle the problems of  poverty, disability, mental illness, orphans, and so on. Therefore, when there is a community problem which self-interest seemingly cannot directly address, the public assumes government must address it. The only effective way to counter this impulse is to point out that there is another type of “do-good” system: voluntary groups. These are perfectly capable of implementing high-minded, self-sacrificing ideals that people are tempted to use government for.

3. Avoiding negativism.

When the public sees government as the only problem-solving system, people will interpret a campaign against government as an anti-community position. This perception of “negativity” is a cross freedom activists have born for generations. Those who are against government programs for education, arts, or disabled people, are perceived to be against education, the arts, and disabled people. They are said to be lacking in compassion. They are accused of promoting a Darwinian wasteland where everyone seeks his personal benefit and cares nothing about the good of the community.

This accusation of negativism collapses if freedom advocates are seen to be working harder than anybody to improve their community through voluntary groups.

For example, there are two ways to counter tax-funded education in a community. One method is to form a committee to work to defeat a school bond election. To most people in the community, this type of campaign will seem backward-looking and harmful to children—and selfish (participants are assumed to be trying to lower their own taxes).

The voluntarist would avoid this kind of negative campaign, but, instead, put his efforts and his money into supporting independent schools. For example, he could create and fund a scholarship program for these independent schools.

4. Being user friendly and avoiding intolerance.

Most people react to ideas in personal, emotional terms. They are swayed by people who are relaxed and sociable and put off by people who are strident and hostile. Many freedom activists suffer from a “sociability deficit.” They turn possible supporters away by the implacability of their positions. For example, the word “voluntaryism” announces its rough edges with that unnatural “y” which befuddles computer spell-checkers and frightens elementary school teachers. The awkwardness of the word signals a rather dogmatic premise, namely that the initiation of force is absolutely and always wrong. Libertarians can project something of the same intolerance with their insistence that policies be grounded in transcendental natural “rights.”

Voluntarism has a non-dogmatic view of big government and the people who believe in it. This patient view is grounded in an evolutionary perspective on government. The voluntarist knows that in the past there were many arrangements based on the initiation of force, practices like human sacrifice, slavery, and religious persecution. In their heyday, these practices were cherished by both elites and publics, viewed as “the price we pay for civilization.” Yet history has swept them aside. The voluntarist has confidence that today’s practices based on the initiation of force—Social Security, the National Endowment for the Arts, and so forth—will also pass away.

This belief that history is on his side means, first, that the voluntarist doesn’t feel he has to loudly criticize big government at every turn, and contradict everyone who expresses support for government programs. He doesn’t have to wreck the dinner party by haranguing a grandmother for taking Medicare. And second, this confidence in the direction of history means that one can, to a large extent, let politics take care of itself. While a personal effort to oppose, say, the National Endowment for the Arts might slightly hasten the day of its demise, this effort is not necessary to eliminate it. Given history’s relentless movement against the use of force, this arrangement can be expected to unravel sooner or later—and perhaps in a quite unexpected way.

This confidence in the coming demise of big government means that the voluntarist does not have to be always fighting battles against it. He can engage in activities that are more immediately beneficial—such as participating in community service voluntary groups, and working to strengthen the voluntary sector in general.

[1] A voluntary group, as the term is used here, is an organization that gets its support through voluntary means, including a significant element of charitable or altruistic support. It does not necessarily have volunteers, but this form of altruistic support (donated labor) is very valuable. Thus, groups called “volunteer groups” are almost always voluntary groups, but voluntary groups as defined here can have paid staff.
By this definition, an organization that receives government funding—that is, funds raised through the coercion of taxation—is not a voluntary organization. If tax funding constitutes a minor source of revenue, it might be considered a voluntary organization for most practical purposes.
Because commercial businesses do not get significant altruistic support (donations, volunteers) they do not fall under our definition of a voluntary group. However, because commercial businesses do operate on a voluntary basis—and also provides valuable community services, they are close cousins.

[2] For a discussion of the illusion of government preeminence and the role of the voluntary sector examination see James L. Payne, Six Political Illusions (Lytton 2010), pp 101-126.