THE VOLUNTARY CULTURE
The first voluntary act of Americanism was mental.
Even when driven here by the direst of circumstances,
most first-generation Americans from earliest times
had to think at some point, "I'm going to become an American"
- half a wish, half an expectation.
To think of joining a nation is a staggering idea,
so extraordinary that it is accepted without reflection,
like the air one breathes. It is different, say,
from the English going into Ireland proclaiming
"Well, you are now English,"
or the French going to Corsica saying "You are now French,"
or the Germans doing the same in Alsace,
or the Soviets in Estonia.
Beginning with only a voluntary tie to the state,
the individualistic ego expands greatly.
Yes, the critic says, and that's where all the trouble begins.
Self-help is part of the voluntaristic ethic.
Specifically, it probably began with the problem of Protestants,
newly detached from the Catholic Universal Church,
who had now to save themselves in order to get to heaven.
Much of the history of Protestantism became then a
dialectic of self-help. One had to get all the way from original sin to
possible, while uncertain, salvation by one's personal efforts.
Catholicism can be seen in the same perspective, of course. But
Catholics had long lost the Augustinian sense of urgency that now
beset the Protestants. The "better kind" of people who came to
America had been reading Lewis Bayly's The Practice of Piety
(1612). John Bunyan's allegory of worldliness, temptation, and
successful struggle to achieve salvation, A Pilgrim's Progress, had
appeared in 1678. The Americans began to cook up their own share
of self-help recipes in Cotton Mather's The Christian at His Calling,
1701. In America, however, the Catholic Church itself became more
Augustinian, that is, intent upon self-help and self-salvation.
Self-help at its best was and is an
ordering and care for the self and the interests of the self -
family affection, work, feeding, learning - in a decent fashion,
without intruding upon the self-helping activities of others or
impinging upon the welfare of the whole group.
At its worst, self-help was aggressive selfishness, even criminality,
and the attitude usually associated with it toward others:
"Root, hog, or die!" or
"It's every man for himself, and the
Devil take the hindmost."
Social and personal training in America always praised self-help,
found much for it to do, and paid it well in respect, money,
new experience, and power. Few doubted that
"God helps those who help themselves."
One problem of self-help persists:
it was forever touted as necessary on the way to salvation;
salvation obviously is the most important achievement
any person could hope for; but, self-help as a way to solve
the mess of social problems and personal problems,
which depended upon the response of others,
failed on countless occasions.
Yet, instead of turning to mutual help as an
ethically equally good path to mundane goals, it was often belittled,
not only in neighborhood affairs,
but as an admissible major means in politics.
Mutual support in politics was highly opportunistic and personal.
If one could get to heaven only through self-help,
surely he could solve mere social problems the same way.
But what of mutual help: was it not as wonderful as self-help?
Why not, "God helps those who help each other"?
Or, for that matter, "Love thy neighbor!"
Americans during the period from 1810 to 1860 were
world famous for doing practically everything without government
except obtaining land and taking care of a few other matters
that I mentioned earlier in connection with Hamilton's
Federalist administration, and in taking charge of records and roads,
and preserving the slave system.
Both governments and people were taking on new jobs now, too.
The governments were Democrat-Republican, Jeffersonian,
and they did less than before under the so-called Federalists,
while the nation had quadrupled in size and population.
Writers, who have been so kind to the Democrats of that age,
ought be reminded that most common men and minorities
got a better deal under the conservatives
than under the party of the common man.
Truly Americans could not think of what government
should do that they could not better do themselves (or so they
believed). A government so close to the people
and so dominated by majoritarian and crowd psychology
might be imagined as immediately setting to work
doing everything imaginable for the good of the people.
The doctrine of individualism and self-help operated
precisely as expectable of an ideology: it kept
people from thinking of alternatives.
What of the immigrants, then?
Immigrants, as immigrants to America were expected to behave,
and came expecting to behave,
readily practiced the rules of initiative and self-help.
A number of German immigrants were socialists of the new secular type
(the Communist Manifesto issued in 1848),
but they were soon assimilated. Only a few remained to
keep the spark alive until the late nineteenth century,
when socialist agitation broke out again.
This is not to say, however, that any generation of natives and
immigrants was wholly preoccupied with self-help.
On the contrary, mutual help or voluntary associationism
was exercised and practiced. And it is practically certain that the
most guarded study would show little difference in this respect
between the earliest and the latest Americans. That self-selection and
a powerful set of environmental forces have been producing these
twin behaviors is indubitable.
To avoid confounding oneself, it may be best to regard the
American character as having two typical branches,
the one of intensive self-help,
the other of equally intensive mutual help.
Experience within almost any voluntary or compulsory group in
America will testify to the presence and tug-o-war between these
two tendencies, even in an involuntary order,
such as an army company or government or corporate office.
Suppose that in a historiographical tour de force,
after putting aside all the things that adult Americans
had to do to earn a living and were required by their
state, local, and federal governments or masters to do,
we could weigh upon the scales all the
voluntary bad and good activities of the citizens of the
American Republic during the period from 1810 to 1860.
Would the good outweigh the bad?
If it did not, would one have to retreat quickly
in a state of shock, declaring, yes,
but the bad would even have been more
if what was voluntary became compulsory.
For example, your putting aside money for a rainy day
(as people used to say long ago)
is better than the government making you do so, or
paying you anyhow. Not only are you better as a person for
doing what you should do without being told, but
the government is better for being less onerous.
But suppose you have all sorts of needs for the money now
and in the coming years, never mind the rainy day that
may put people under umbrellas at your graveside.
Are you to be deprived of all of those joys
that you cannot have when you are old?
And what has your government been doing with your money
in the meantime; lending and spending it like you would?
Or doing just what you don't want it to do?
What you pay to the government or a master
in money and services is compulsory, and
what you must do to support your household is involuntary also;
such is assumed to be true even if all gives you pleasure.
What you do with all your resources of
time, energy, and property that is not involuntary is voluntary.
Voluntarism as the word is used here means
what you and others do jointly and voluntarily.
Unfortunately a good deal of what one does voluntarily
is not even as pleasurable as what one does at work,
let as say as a wine taster,or in fulfilling, let us say,
an obligation to be a juror or a soldier.
Think in this connection of the church-goer
who goes because she feels that she must. Or the
person who exercises reluctantly in
order to keep healthy.
Americans have been famous at least since the early
1800's for their cooperative activities.
For the first century of the Nation's two-hundred-year history,
voluntary activities accounted for more time and
resources and projects than did the state, local and federal
governments put together. Insofar as the
settlement of a new area,
organizing it into a territorial government, and
bringing it into the union, were tasks undertaken
voluntarily by people without compulsion,
often lacking direction or even encouragement from the
other states or federal government, the very process of
expansionism may be regarded as an enormous
constructive voluntary effort.
Still, it was an essentially simple process, and
we should hardly be surprised if, thereafter,
the governments that they did set up were models of
inactivity such as would warm the
cockles of Adam Smith's heart..
We hasten to assert, however, that
some highly important activities were not performed at all
and the question is why:
was it because the people did not want them to be done,
that they did not recognize their need or there was no need,
or that the nature of the activities was such that
they could only be done by the government,
either because they were never known before,
or because their peculiar qualities let there be only one solution,
a governmental way, of doing them.
How can one praise a legislature ,
where voluntarism borders upon anarchy,
with wheeling-and-dealing the order of every legislative day,
and corruption embedded cheerfully in ordinary party politics?
Is there something distinctively virtuous about voluntarism?
To answer this, we have to assume that
what is compulsory is evil, all things being equal.
Things are often not equal.
It was better to force the whiskey rebels to pay a tax
than to let them destroy the system of law and order, or so we say.
While this may be true, we have to go back to the question
whether all that is voluntary is good.
No, because the whiskey distillers were not good,
and doubly naughty when they refused to be taxed.
Still, it is possible, and probably well, to believe that
a voluntary good act is superior morally to a compelled good act.
And what of the person who voluntarily submits to compulsion,
as opposed to the person who hates and tries to
reject all forms of compulsion or a particular form?
Are not discipline and order, and the ability to
organize such and submit to it, good types of conduct?
But is this true of a voluntary bad act?
Surprisingly not. On the contrary.
We say that a person who willfully commits evil is behaving worse
than if he had been compelled to commit the same evil.
But can we not say that a person who voluntarily is good is
superior to both a voluntarily bad person and
a person compelled to be bad or to be good.
We have here the reason why
a person who of his own free will commits a good act
is regarded highly.
Still, how sure can we be?
Perhaps the voluntarist is aesthetically more pleasing
than the obedient person who is someone else's servant.
Perhaps it was the exotic attractiveness of American associationism
that so bemused young aristocratic Alexis de Tocqueville,
when he was traveling about the country.
And, although they may not be called evil in intent,
but just the opposite,
how should one judge all of those voluntary groups and movements
aimed at getting government to make more behaviors compulsory?
Alcoholic temperance movements, for instance, and
evangelistic movements of the nineteenth century
imposing prayers in the factories, schools, and halls of government?
And, furthermore, the same person is thought to be
especially superior, if he does not obtain pleasure from his action,
or may even suffer in the act of doing good.
The parent who spanks his child saying sincerely,
"This hurts me more than it does you," is thus better than the parent
who feels nothing or even a pleasure in spanking his child. We
abandon the discussion now, because it appears to be
getting more complicated: is spanking
itself good; is the parent ignorant or mean; is the
punishment proportionate to the crime?
And so it goes.
Although we must race through the abundant materials on the
American as an associative animal, we can now at least avoid the
supposition insinuated by so many historians and publicists,
that all such conduct is blessed and helped make the nation great.
We may rather even entertain the notion that
at least half of the voluntary and cooperative activity was
dedicated to causes one might not wish to support.