Friday, March 9, 2012

These are NOT voluntary organizations

I spent part of yesterday in journeying to and from Oxford and reading an elegantly short book edited by the highly distinguished Tom G. Palmer (full disclosure: he is a friend of long standing and we both love cats), entitled The Morality of Capitalism.

The essays are uneven but I do recommend the book to all either because they might find pithy arguments to back their own opinions or because they might find it interesting to read arguments that oppose their opinions and undermine their emotions. As John Milton, one of this blog's patron saints, explained some centuries ago, one reason why speech must not be controlled is because even people who are in the right (and he thought there were people in the right) need to be able to test their opinions against opposing ones.

I shall try to do several postings about the book and the various essays, some more critical than others and some that will use the essays as a starting point, a little like sermon texts. (Yes, you can stop reading now, if you wish to.)

Today's "text" comes from David Boaz's excellent piece Competition and Cooperation (on page 31), which argues the to me irrefutable point that a free economy (not the crony capitalism and regulatory statism we have) relies on competition but cannot exist without co-operation that involves our free participation.

In particular, the author differentiates between all organizations that are "voluntary", whether they are businesses that need to make profits or charities that do not, and those created by the states, who, obviously enough, enforces our participation in them.
Some analysts distinguish between commercial and nonprofit organizations, arguing that businesses are part of the market, not of civil society; but I follow the tradition that the real distinction is between associations that are coercive — the state — and those that are natural or voluntary—everything else. Whether a particular association is established to make a profit or to achieve some other purpose, the key characteristic is that our participation in it is voluntarily chosen.
This clarity of division has been muddied, probably deliberately, by the change in terminology. The trouble, particularly in Britain, lies with the expression "voluntary organizations". In many cases this term has replaced the old word "charity" as the bodies in question are not precisely charities: they do not raise money from private donors, either individual or corporate, for specific and clearly understood aims. Instead they receive money from the state. They are not, therefore, accountable to the donors in the way they spend that money, pursuing a particular charitable purpose.

In fact, they are, despite their preferred description, not voluntary organizations. As they are funded by local or central government with, in the case of the larger ones, the occasional grant from some transnational body, they are actually part of the state machinery and rely on hand-outs that are taken from that patient milch-cow, the taxpayer, whose participation in the funding is far from voluntary. They are also, controlled in their aims and activity by the state, its minions and its political ideas.

The subject has been much in evidence in the fairly vehement discussions in my borough, where the Council has managed to reduce local tax for the third year running without, they say, reducing essential services. So far as I can make it out, they are not wrong though there is some debate going on about Meals-on-Wheels. As I don't know the rights and wrongs of it, I cannot comment.

I can, however, comment about another and far more vociferous complaint. It seems that the Council has saved money by cutting back on its grants to "voluntary organizations", who appear unable to function without hand-outs from taxes, and by selling a rather fine but somewhat dilapidated building where a number of these organizations had offices for which they, presumably, paid no rent. The building is going to become a free school, which is yet another good idea.

Over twenty "voluntary organizations", we are told in tones of horror, will have to close. What will happen to their clients? Well, what indeed.

My immediate question was about the number. Why on earth do we need that many "voluntary organizations"? After all, if twenty-plus will close, many more will remain open and functioning at the Council's that is our expense. Do we really have that many different vulnerable groups who need all this help? Is there not, perhaps, some overlap between the various groups and their activity, with money going out more than once for the same purpose? Could they not, perhaps, be inventing problems and vulnerabilities in order to survive and keep claiming money?

Neither I nor anyone else knows the answer to those questions but I strongly suspect that if these organizations were really voluntary (and there is nothing to stop them from becoming that now); if they had to present proper plans and well defined aims to potential donors and be evaluated by the people who might voluntarily give them money rather rather than tick boxes on forms created by local councils and civil servants on the basis of their own priorities, we would find out those answers. We would probably find out exactly how useful these "voluntary organizations" are to anyone except the people who work in them either for money or for free.


  1. Ominously the authorities now refer to charities as "The Third Sector" - the other two being government of all kinds and business of all kinds. The trouble is that with PFI etc government and business are thoroughly mixed up in a way which is intended to be inextricable and the same goes for government and much (though not all) of the "Third Sector".

    People who want to relieve famine are giving to "charities" which promote the global warming/climate change agenda. Even churches are doing that and making it, as near a damn it, part of their official creeds. . People who want to save cuddly polar bears are doing the same.

    This blurring of public/private functions into "partnership" with government can be called "crony capitalism" but is equally typical of fascism.

  2. I hesitate to use the word fascism for all sorts of reasons. Otherwise, I cannot disagree, Edward. It is a subject that is only patchily covered though EURef has done a lot of work on it. But the problem goes beyond just the EU. As do most problems, of course.