The Tea Party, libertarians and other so-called conservatives devoted to slashing all government spending not related to the military, prisons and highways have an easy answer when asked what happens to people whose lives and livelihoods depend on public programs. They point to volunteerism -- the tradition of people taking care of each other which has sustained human civilization for millennia.
It's a compelling idea that evokes the spirit of the commons (the growing movement to protect cultural and economic assets belonging to all of us). Volunteers working largely outside the realm of government -- neighborhood organizations, fire brigades, blood banks and other civic initiatives -- are obvious examples of commons-based sharing and caring.
So that means Ron Paul, Michele Bachmann and Mitt Romney qualify as commoners? Even with their adamant skepticism about Medicare, environmental regulations and campaign finance limits?
Not so fast! Volunteerism never rises above a convenient smokescreen, which right-of-center politicians use to justify shredding the social safety net. Increased support for the people and institutions that strengthen our communities, help the poor and the sick, protect the environment and generally make America a kinder and gentler place never make the final cut in right-wing blueprints for our future. Republicans (and too many Democrats) are all talk and no action when it comes to actually supporting the kind of cooperative efforts that make volunteerism work.
Theoretically you could imagine a classical conservative model of a commons-based society based upon strong incentives for everyday citizens to handle most of the services now provided by federal, state and local governments -- everything from police protection to basic scientific research to the Public Health Service. Creating such a society, however, would mean sweeping changes to current economic and social policies that today's right-wing leaders would never tolerate.
To truly encourage widespread volunteerism, we'd need to make sure that everyone (not just the well-to-do) have the time to do it. Most people today, working longer hours for less pay, are struggling just to take care of duties at work and home. Finding extra time in their crunched schedules to manage the upkeep of the local park or take care of elderly neighbors sounds impossible.
What it would take to make this happen is dramatically expanded vacation time, family-leave benefits and probably a four-day workweek -- or at least stringent enforcement of overtime provisions for everyone working more than 40 hours a week.
Even more important to boosting volunteerism would be a return to the days of the family wage -- the period before the 1970s when a middle-class household could get by on one worker's wages. This would trigger a wave of volunteerism that could change the face of America.
The first step in making this happen would be enacting a Canadian-style health care systems and tripling the minimum wage. But unlike the old days, minorities and low-wage workers would not be excluded from this social contract. And since we live in a different social era now, it's likely that many couples would elect to both work half-time.
I cannot imagine that politicians who call themselves conservative would stand for any of the ideas laid out in the previous two paragraphs -- although some of the people who vote for them might, including evangelicals, traditionalist Catholics and "conservatives" who are actually in favor of "conserving" natural resources and community values rather than sacrificing them in the name of exponentially expanding corporate profits.
These pro-volunteer, pro-commons policies would also be unpopular with Republicans because they depend on government playing an important role: Enforcing the new vacation, family leave, work hours and minimum wage laws, as well as making sure everyone has adequate health care coverage.
Politicians and pundits on the right often accuse progressives of being naïve about human nature for not recognizing the true motives that drive people's behavior. That's debatable, especially in light of new evidence from many scientific fields that our cooperative instincts are stronger than our selfish ones.
But we certainly have a case of the pot calling the kettle black right here: conservatives laud volunteerism as the best way to maintain our social fabric yet naively believe this will happen all by itself. They oppose policies that stop unscrupulous employers from offering low wages and stingy vacations policies that leave most Americans with almost no time left over to nurture the common good.
Excerpted from a story appearing at On The Commons.