Compulsory Volunteering

by Russ Roberts on July 9, 2008

in Charity

Here is a superb post on the Orwellian idea of compulsory volunteering.

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{ 9 comments }

Michael F. Martin July 9, 2008 at 4:12 pm

"Compulsory volunteering" as a label makes about as much sense as "libertarian paternalism." Awful non sequiturs.

But there may be some Hayekian insight hidden in "choice architecture" (a/k/a "libertarian paternalism") if it means building government institutions that facilitate cooperation (and thus growth) through privately adaptable rules.

…and if that's the case, then perhaps there is something Hayekian silver-lining to the idea of "compulsory volunteering"?

Consider that no child ever "volunteers" to do chores.

BoscoH July 9, 2008 at 4:31 pm

Right on. For some reason, this got me thinking again about the latest Hanson EconTalk, where he went into signaling with anonymous charity. I love the signaling explanation of everything, but that really struck me as too crude an explanation. The explanation being that anonymous givers generally want to be found out.

There is a nice cause that I like. I have a little side job blogging on a fairly popular site that pays a non-negligible but token amount for each post I contribute. Instead of them sending me the check, I have them send the check to the cause that I like. The cause sends the site thank you notes which are then forwarded to me. I would much rather just have that be anonymous. The blogging is fun. Someone wants to pay me to do it. I want my cause to be the beneficiary. There might be a couple of people I am "signaling" in this whole equation, and those people don't need this particular signal to form their opinions about me. If I earn $500 for this cause during the year, it doesn't buy me $500 worth of signal with them or get me $500 closer to any life or eternal goals. I just enjoy blogging and am happy something I like can benefit. And this is doing the cause a whole lot more good than if I showed up and got in the way two Saturdays a month.

Russ, I sure would like to see an explanation (or framework) for charity from a classic liberal perspective that feels consistent with my own experience. Hanson doesn't cut it. And the alternative to having one seems to be mandatory volunteerism, national greatness, the draft, Naziism, etc. It sounds to me like the author of the linked article is asking for that discussion too.

Brad Warbiany July 9, 2008 at 7:18 pm

Bosco,

In this sense, I wouldn't call it "anonymous" charity. You may not be prominently announcing your charity, but you're also not trying to make it anonymous in any way. Plus, it's not a large enough gift (I'm assuming) where it would be announced by the charity themselves as "look at what this anonymous donor gave us", thus defeating the purpose of being "found out" as that anonymous donor.

Michael F. Martin July 9, 2008 at 8:57 pm

@BoscoH

How about this explanation: cooperation is the source of wealth in our economy. According to Adam Smith, we can cooperate in two ways: voluntary exchange and divisions of labor.

What promotes voluntary exchange and divisions of labor? Is it profit? Well, yes. Profit is a very useful focal point for coordinating people when communication is difficult or impossible.

But is it only profit? Well, no. Sometimes people will cooperate by exchanging time for better schools, better jury decisions, better neighbors, &c. In fact, the primary role of social norms — norms that operate in parallel to legal norms — is in promoting these forms of cooperation.

…but as the world has become more complex, legal norms have had to play double duty as social norms. Think about how many family conflicts are now mediated by divorce lawyers. Think about how divisions of labor in the how have shifted from "I'll specialize in lowering costs and you specialize in earning income" to "Let's renegotiate on the fly."

What we need is legal norms and cultural norms that foster growth — i.e., norms that promote cooperation.

Fortunately, the constitution is practically a how-to manual for building such institutions! For the rest, we have Hayek.

Now do we understand why he saw socialism as inevitable? Well it is but it's nothing to be afraid of. At least it's better than keeping paternalistic government authorities on life support.

(Sorry for the longish comment; but I figure it's on topic.)

Unit July 10, 2008 at 12:20 am

Whereas most welfare is directed to the elderly (60%?),

whereas the elderly are the richest segment of the population (fact?),

whereas the social security system being a paygo system favors the early recipient generations,

whereas students who work 20 hours a week do poorly in their classes,

whereas debt-ridden graduating seniors make perfect subprime mortgage material,

why not raise the retirement age 5 years and give a pension to people in the 18-23 range?

(I'm sure there would be unintended consequences aplenty, but I don't know what they would be…)

LowcountryJoe July 10, 2008 at 10:47 am

One of the first things I learned in 'principles' was that there is a difference between an accounting profit and an economic profit. This made sense. Then, later, while taking micro analysis, we studied the concepts of utility a whole lot more closely.

Utility is the end game money is just the tool to aquire some — but not all — utility. Recognition, in today's I-want-attention-society, is of value and can be substituted as a type of profit, can it not?

LowcountryJoe July 10, 2008 at 10:47 am

One of the first things I learned in 'principles' was that there is a difference between an accounting profit and an economic profit. This made sense. Then, later, while taking micro analysis, we studied the concepts of utility a whole lot more closely.

Utility is the end game money is just the tool to aquire some — but not all — utility. Recognition, in today's I-want-attention-society, is of value and can be substituted as a type of profit, can it not?

Sam Grove July 11, 2008 at 10:50 am

Way back when, I was in the boy scouts.
It came to pass that the troop got a new troop leader in the shape of an ex-marine.
At one meeting, they requested volunteers to march in the Memorial Day parade.

I declined to volunteer as it was our family practice to spend the day together.

It was brought up at the next scout meeting that I had been seen watching the parade with my family which was followed by some heated discussion about what to do about those that could've/should've volunteered but didn't.

That was the last meeting I attended.

Keith July 11, 2008 at 11:00 am

Quote from Sam Grove: "Way back when, I was in the boy scouts.
It came to pass that the troop got a new troop leader in the shape of an ex-marine."

The military is the most socialist organization in the world. All individuality subsumed to the needs and goals of the collective.

It's not surprising that an ex-marine would have a strong socialist attitude. It's unfortunate that he didn't understand that the Boy Scouts are not the Marines (although I think they trend that way).

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