• The Inanity of a Volunteer

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    Sunday's
    The New York Times Magazine featured, as the cover story,
    “The Vanity of Volunteerism,” by Sara Mosle. In it, she discusses
    her six years of experience acting as a mentor to a group of inner
    city, black children. Throughout the article she seems genuinely
    interested in these kids well being, and the reader senses that
    they are all better off for having known her.

    But
    Mosle's piece is not a paean to the virtues of volunteering. Her
    personal story instead serves as the vehicle for criticism of cutbacks
    in government “social spending” and for ridicule of the notion that
    an army of volunteers can replace the state in caring for troubled
    children.

    The
    life of these kids is still hard, Mosle informs us, “despite the
    boom.” (I picture her undergoing a mighty struggle to refrain from
    writing, “The rising tide doesn't lift all boats.”) She tells a
    heart-wrenching story of one of “her kids” fathers losing his job,
    the family's eviction from their apartment, the parents' marital
    split-up, life in a shelter, and the harsh realities of welfare
    reform. Then, she admits that she really doesn't know if this is
    what happened at all! What the heck, it sure builds sympathy for
    her case, though.

    Miss
    Mosle's kids are frequently staring wistfully at things “that they
    couldn't afford.” But Miss Mosle doesn't seem to recognize that
    this is a universal condition of human existence. There are things
    that even Bill Gates can't afford, such as a cooperative Justice
    Department. Of course, the condition of being poor is such that
    there will be far more things that you can't afford if you are poor
    than if you are Bill Gates. As John Cleese's Robin Hood says in
    Time Bandits: “Have you met the poor? Wonderful people. Of
    course, they haven't got two pennies to rub together…” A look of
    dawning realization crosses his face. “… but, then, that's what
    makes them the poor, isn't it?” Unless Miss Mosle is advocating
    a Communist utopia as the solution to her kids' problems, then there
    will always be people who are, relatively speaking, poor, and there
    will be goods that their neighbors have that these poor can only
    wistfully long for.

    At
    one point, Mosle receives a phone call informing her that one of
    her kids is being held by security at a Toys “R” Us because he had
    “damaged some product” during an episode of wistful staring. Miss
    Mosle's chagrin at the whole episode is palpable. Put a poor kid,
    some video games, and a dollop of yearning together and… well, next
    thing you know some stuff is smashed up. How of déclassé
    of Toys “R” Us to make a fuss!

    One
    of the other kid's fathers was released from prison and proceeded
    to steal all of the family's possessions, including the child's
    clothes. Yet another dad, although “a present and caring parent,”
    was addicted to drugs and repeatedly stole from his family. Finally,
    after his “significant other” threw him out of the family apartment,
    he broke back in by smashing a window, which “cut up” his daughter.
    With “caring parents” like this, how could these kids possibly be
    having any difficulties?

    But
    all of these tales are just an emotional shelling of the beach in
    preparation for Miss Mosle's attempt to land her main force – a plea
    for more government programs. Mosle continues: “That's not to say
    that volunteering has no value. But it doesn't offer a systematic
    solution to hunger, poverty or homelessness.” No, and neither did
    the trillions of dollars spent on the War on Poverty. In fact, these
    government programs have fallen out of favor because many people
    realized that they were making matters worse rather than better.

    The
    fact is that these are individual, not systematic, problems. The
    solutions to them are individual, and do not involve fixing “the
    system.” Mosle makes a passing nod at the reality of the situation
    when she acknowledges that it is children's families (and, she questionably
    adds, their teachers) who are in the best position to help them.
    But she concludes by saying, “What these kids need – what all these
    kids need – isn't me, but a real after-school program.”

    No,
    what these kids need – what all kids need – are good families.
    In their absence, the most we have are stopgap measures. It is delusional
    to imagine that we can evade this harsh reality by escaping into
    romantic visions of the land of Cockaigne, where everything that
    we find unsatisfactory about the human condition has magically vanished.
    If we try to alleviate parents of the ultimate responsibility for
    the well being of their children, we only will add more sorrow to
    already troubled lives.

    July
    6, 2000

    Gene Callahan is a regular contributor to mises.org.

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