The Public Interest and the Limits of Volunteerism

Dec. 13, 2006 ( — 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."

Leave a Reply