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Nelson Mandela and Volunteerism

Mises Daily: Thursday, July 21, 2011 by

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This week Nelson Mandela celebrates his 93rd birthday. In honor of the event, the Nelson Mandela Foundation is asking people to donate 67 minutes of their time to public service. Although the foundation and the media reporting on it undoubtedly mean well, the entire discussion perpetuates the myth that paid work is somehow useless to society.

But the truth is just the opposite: If someone is actually getting paid to do work, he or she knows that at least one person values it. In contrast, volunteer work may or may not be useful, because it lacks the feedback of market prices. My point in this article isn't to denigrate volunteer work, but rather to rehabilitate paid work.

Nelson Mandela's "Public Service"

A CBS News report captures the typical coverage of Mandela's birthday:

In honor of Nelson Mandela International Day, the Nelson Mandela Foundation asks that people around the world do a mere sixty-seven minutes of work to better the community in honor of the sixty-seven years of service Mandela has performed for the greater good. The inspiring South African leader turns 93 today.

The Foundation has sixty-seven suggestions of simple things that each person can do to better the world, among which are getting tested for HIV with a partner, reading to someone who can't or helping out at an animal shelter. For working folk, it's hard to dedicate sixty-seven minutes to breathing, let alone helping others. Well, if you have a computer you don't have an excuse.

There are several sites which allow online participation in volunteer work and a list of organizations that welcome that kind of help. Giving a mere thirty minutes to an organization helping them to design a flyer, edit a blog post, providing your business or legal expertise or even just doing some good old fashioned research can make all the difference in the world.

Most people would have no objection to the above excerpt, and yet the cynical economist can find problems. First of all, by focusing on Mandela's 67 years of "service … for the greater good," the writer implies that more conventional forms of employment are not for the greater good.

The Real Public Servants

My real beef with the article centers on this sentence: "For working folk, it's hard to dedicate sixty-seven minutes to breathing, let alone helping others." What in the world can that mean?

By definition, "working folk" are helping others five days a week (at least). It's typical to say that people in Congress are in the business of "public service," but that's ridiculous. The politicians in DC take my money against my will, and spend it on things that I don't want and often consider downright criminal. That's not serving me at all.

In contrast, whenever I stop by a Cracker Barrel — one of my favorite places to grab a meal on road trips — I interact with several people who really do serve me. There's often a cheerful person who greets me when I walk in the door, another person who takes down my name and gives me an estimate (usually pretty accurate) of how long the wait will be, and another person who escorts me to the table and sets me up with a menu and silverware. Finally, the most obvious person is the waitress who literally serves me — she brings tasty food within a few minutes after I request it.

Indeed, if we didn't take profit-seeking restaurants for granted, they would seem like a magical place, straight out of a fairy tale. Imagine! I'm driving along the interstate down to the Mises Institute to teach a summer seminar, and all along the way there are identical buildings, each filled with people who wear the same costumes. As far as I can tell from their treatment of me, these people want nothing more in life than to make my lunch or dinner as enjoyable as possible.

What did I do to deserve such royal treatment? Did I stumble upon a genie's lamp, and request to be king? No, what happens is that I do the same in my own line of work, doing my best to "serve others" by giving them speeches, blog posts, articles, books, and other items that they desire.

Forget the Brothers Grimm; my description of society now sounds less like a fairy tale and more like a utopia pictured by Karl Marx. I spend most of my waking hours trying to serve my fellowmen, while most of them — specifically, the "working folk" and not those ostensibly in "public service" — are doing the same.

The Role of Money

Of course, the one feature I've omitted from my analysis is the crucial role of money. The workers at Cracker Barrel aren't really just serving me because it brings intrinsic happiness to them; they're competing with other restaurants (and vendors in general) for my money. By the same token, I don't shower my speeches and writing indiscriminately on anyone who asks for them; one of the most important criteria is how much a potential client is willing to pay me.

Although the use of money strikes many people as dirty, it shouldn't. In the treatment of Austrian economists such as Ludwig von Mises, we see that money is an indispensable social institution that allows for the more effective use of resources and the division of labor. To put the matter bluntly, if we suddenly discontinued the use of money, most people on Earth would soon starve to death.

The Limits of Volunteerism

If everyone quit his or her day job and went full-time into volunteering, the total output of various goods and services would also crash. For one thing, few people would volunteer for unpleasant tasks such as garbage collection and bathroom mopping.

Even more important, people would have no idea where their services were the most productive, in the opinion of others. I spelled out the argument a bit fancifully in an earlier article titled "Superman Needs an Agent." The idea was that, even though Superman is completely altruistic and wants nothing but to use his incredible powers to help humanity, that particular objective isn't specific enough. There are all sorts of ways he could spend his time making particular people better off.

Let me deal with one obvious objection. People might say, "Just because rich people have a lot of money, that doesn't make them more worthy of receiving assistance than others. That's the problem with the profit motive."

Yet this isn't the full story. Let's keep working with the example of Superman: Even if his goal is to, say, feed as many hungry people as possible, it does not follow that he should directly deploy his superpowers to this end. It might make more sense to sell his labor to the highest bidder, and then use the income (which would be in the billions of dollars per year, easily) to fund antihunger initiatives.

Conclusion

There is nothing wrong with volunteer work per se, especially for its ability to change the person doing the volunteering. (I will never forget my trip to Haiti, for example.) Yet it is simply sloppy thinking to say that people who volunteer (or who go into politics!) are "serving the public" in a way that paid workers are not.

The Austrian School stresses the important coordinating function of market prices, and in particular the crucial role money serves in modern society. Only against a backdrop of monetary exchange do we have the luxury of spending hours on noble volunteer activities.