The Public Interest and the
Limits of Volunteerism
The Crisis Papers
December 12, 2006
Adapted from Chapter 5 of
“Conscience of a
Progressive” – a book in progress.
See the book for references and citations.
Libertarians often tell us that personal voluntary restraint and charitable
contributions are morally preferable solutions to social problems than
government coercion and taxation. Ronald Reagan probably had this in mind when
he said in his first inaugural address that “government is not the solution –
government is the problem.”
To be sure, personal self-control and charity are virtues, while political
coercion and taxation are not.
The trouble is, in numerous and significant instances, volunteerism doesn’t work.
Example: The Catalytic Converter
Consider the catalytic converter as a solution to the problem of air pollution.
(The numbers are “made up” as accuracy is not important. This is a hypothetical
“model” based roughly on generally known technology and demographics).
The catalytic converter is a device placed on a vehicle’s exhaust system which
eliminates (let us assume) 90% of exhaust pollution. Assume further that
purchase and installation of the unit costs $200. In the Los Angeles airshed
(near my residence) are ten million vehicles.
Would I be willing to pay $200 to clean up the air in my neighborhood?
In an LA
minute! Will I clean up the air by volunteering, all by myself, to install a
catalytic converter? No way! If I install the device, I will reduce the pollution by slightly
less than one ten-millionth. In effect, no reduction at all. And I will be out
$200. To put the matter bluntly: in cases such as this, volunteerism is not only futile, it is
irrational. The solution is obvious and compelling: require that all vehicles
have working catalytic converters. This has in fact been done in California.
It's the law. Result: the air pollution in LA has been dramatically reduced, to
the relief of the vast majority of Angelinos, and at an individual cost
acceptable to that majority.
If a proposition to repeal the catalytic converter requirement were put on the
ballot, it would be soundly defeated (assuming the public was correctly
informed). The solution is straightforward, rational and popular: “mutual
coercion mutually agreed upon,” as the late Garrett Hardin put it, imposed and
enforced by “big government.”
This solution is a cost to the individual (“bad for each”), but the “social
benefit” is well-worth it (“good for all”).
Example: The Support of Public Safety Agencies
Consider next the voluntary support of public safety agencies. Presumably, most
of you have received phone calls from a member of the local police and fire
departments, asking for donations to assist them in their work. This is a recent
phenomenon, for which we can all thank the resurgent Right. I doubt that I ever
received such a solicitation before 1981, when Ronald Reagan told us all that “government
is the problem, not the solution.”
When I receive such a call, I agree to make a small donation. But then I ask,
“Isn’t this the sort of thing that we pay our taxes for?” Invariably the individual
on the other end agrees and we commiserate about the shameful neglect of our
public safety institutions.
The solicitation of private contributions in support of public institutions
amounts to an excise tax on charity and civic responsibility. The individual
citizen who declines to contribute is as safe from crime and as protected from
fire as those who contribute. (This is the well-known “free rider” problem, for
which I have yet to hear a plausible reply from the libertarians). Voluntary
financing of public safety agencies is unjust on its face. Clearly, those who
benefit from these services should be required to support them, according to
these individuals’ ability to pay. The method devised to accomplish this purpose
is well-known to us all. It’s call “taxation.”
Social Good and "The Commons"
Air quality, which is improved by mandatory use of catalytic converters, is what
is known as a “common good,” or more briefly, a “commons.” Other “material” or
“resource” commons include, water, oceans, open range pastures, public parks,
etc. But there are also “non-material” commons that are equally, if not more
important to the quality of social life and the justice of a political order.
These include the rule of law, the quality and level of education in the
community, trust in the government and the prevailing sense among the citizens
of that government’s legitimacy, the degree of civility and the “moral tone”
extant in the society. When unscrupulous individuals act to their own advantage, heedless of the consequences to others, they can degrade “the moral commons”
– the mutual respect and constraint that is implicit in every well ordered
society. For example, when outlaws are unpunished, the rule of law suffers.
Worse still, when corrupt politicians and government officials put themselves
above the law and betray the citizens by accepting bribes from special interest
and by violating the Constitutional protections of those citizens, they erode
the trust that is essential to good government. And when
there is reason to believe that the ballot has been compromised and there are no
offsetting procedures to assure the accuracy of the ballot, the very legitimacy
of the government and of legislation is diminished.
In a just political order, based on the principles of our founding documents,
government and the rule of law are the common “property” of the citizens at
large, and of no class or faction in particular. This principle is stated
explicitly in the Declaration of our Independence: “to secure these rights,
governments are instituted among men, deriving their just powers from the
consent of the governed.”
The libertarian Right insists that so-called “public goods” and “public
interest” are nothing more than simple summations of private goods and
interests. Indeed, as Ayn Rand put it, “there is no such entity as ‘society,’
since society is only a number of individual men... The common good” (or “the
public interest”) is an undefined and undefinable concept..." (“The Virtue of
Good for Each, Bad for All
In fact, and contrary to libertarian dogma, in numerous identifiable cases
(which I discuss in “Conscience of a Progressive”), the individual pursuit of optimum personal freedom and
benefit can be detrimental to society at large – “good for each, bad for all.”
Conversely, constraints upon individuals may result in benefits for the society
– “bad for each, good for all.” For example, consider the case of antibiotics
which medical practice has clearly demonstrated lose their potency the more
they are prescribed. The widespread use of antibiotics, while clearly to the
advantage of each patient, results in loss of potency which is to the
disadvantage of all patients. Thus it is “in the public interest” to discourage
the use of antibiotics by non-critical patients. And as we saw in our opening
example, because it is to the advantage of all citizens (i.e., in "the public
interest") to breathe clean air, each citizen is justly required to have a
catalytic converter on his vehicle. Clean air is thus a “public good”
which can be enhanced through the
imposition of “personal bads” -- the cost of mandatory catalytic converters. Clearly “the
public interest” and “public goods” are in these cases, as well as many others,
distinguishable from the summation of private interests and goods.
The coordinate principles, "good for each, bad for all" and "bad for each, good
for all," resound throughout the history of political thought -- from Aristotle,
through Thomas Hobbes, John Locke, Jean Jacques Rousseau, and Thomas Jefferson, on to
the present day. Indeed, the practical applications of these principles are
implicit in successful communities, from the present extending far back into
pre-history. They are the key to the survival of communities of social insects
such as bees and termites, and of social animals such as wolf packs, wherein
evolution, not rational deliberation, provides their validation.
And yet, amazingly, those who presume to call themselves "conservatives," reject
these principles, in favor of another: "good for each, good for all." This
principle of the political right, exemplified by "trickle-down economics" and
the assurance that "the rising [economic] tide raises all boats," is immediately
appealing. Who would not desire that collective "goods" should result from the
achievement of personal well-being? And in fact, the progressive will readily
admit that many human endeavors that achieve individual benefits, also benefit
society at large. “Good for each, good for all” is true in particular and
identifiable cases, such as artistic creation, technological invention, and yes,
Is there a simple and unfailing means to distinguish "the invisible hand" (good
for each, good for all), from "the back of the invisible hand" (e.g. the tragedy
of the commons, "good for each, bad for all")? When I posed that question to my
late friend, Garrett Hardin, he replied "that is a Nobel Prize winning
question." Until that Nobel Prize winning genius comes along, we must continue
to do what the empirical and pragmatic progressives have routinely done: experiment. If
individual behavior appears to have socially destructive results, try out a
meliorative policy or law, and if it "works" for society -- if we find a device
that benefits society at an acceptable cost to individual citizens -- then fine,
we'll keep it. If not, try something else. And if it becomes clear that the best
policy is for government and the law to leave well-enough alone (good for each,
good for all) -- for example, maintaining the separation between church and
state, or refusing to prohibit sex acts between consenting adults -- then let
non-interference be the government policy. Right-wing propaganda to the contrary
notwithstanding, progressives are not eager to expand government interference
and control over the private lives of its citizens. It is not the progressives
that are demanding Constitutional amendments against gay marriage, abortion, and
The error of the libertarian Right resides in its embrace of the principle "good
for each, good for all" as dogma, to be applied a priori to society and the economy,
virtually without exception. By rejecting, implicitly, the principle of "good
for each, bad for all" and vice versa, the Right recognizes no personal price
that must be paid for the maintenance of a just social order, and pays no heed
to the social costs of one's personal "pursuit of happiness."
For theirs is a radically reductive view of society. According to the
"free-market absolutist" faction of the falsely-labeled "conservatives" (better,
"regressives"), an optimal society emerges "naturally" and spontaneously out of
an aggregate of individuals in exclusive pursuit of their personal
self-interest. To the regressive, "the common good" and "public benefit" are
myths. Indeed, so too is society itself, as Ayn Rand insists. Accordingly, we
are asked to believe, so-called "society" is merely an aggregate of private
individuals, like a pile of sand grains, occupying contiguous space. Ideally,
say the regressives, all associations are strictly voluntary. And because "there
is no such thing as society," there are no systemic social harms. It follows
that those who are poor are not "victims" of society or the economy, they choose
to be poor due to their personal moral failings.
The Necessity of Government
For the libertarian right, the only legitimate functions of government are the
protection of the three fundamental rights of life, liberty and property. Hence,
the only legitimate disbursement of tax revenues is for the military (protection
from foreign enemies), the "night watchman" police (protection from domestic
enemies), and the courts (adjudication of property disputes). Because there are
no "public goods," compulsory tax payment for public education, research and
development of science and technology, medical care, museums, libraries, promotion of the
arts, public and national parks, etc., is the moral equivalent of theft.
According to this account of human nature and society, with the exception of the
just noted protections of life, liberty and property, there is nothing that
government can accomplish that private initiative and the free market cannot
achieve with better results.
No regulation, no governmental functions beyond basic protection of life,
liberty and property, no taxes except to support these minimal functions. Any
governmental activity beyond this should, in Grover Norquist's words, be
"drowned in the bathtub."
In contrast, the progressive views society as more than the sum of its parts; it
is what philosophers call an "emergent entity," with properties and principles
of the whole distinct from those of its components just as, analogously,
chemical compounds (e.g. water and salt) have properties distinct from their
component elements. In this sense
society and its economy are
"systems" like a computer, an
engine, an ecosystem, a living language, consisting interacting and
interdependent parts which accomplish together what none can accomplish alone. If the
malfunctions, there are innocent victims -- the poor, the oppressed, the
addicted, the uneducated -- and the system is thus in need of adjustment or
repair or even overhaul and redesign. These corrections are best diagnosed and
treated when the system is examined and analyzed, as a system, and not as an
amalgam of distinct individuals. And diagnosis, adjustment, regulation,
repair, overhaul, redesign of the community-entity are legitimate functions
of a government established to act in the interests of all.