[Previous] [Main Index] [Next]

Monday, January 19, 2004

Exchange with a visitor: Volunteer Work in the US, Comparatively Viewed

A frequent visitor, John --- a legal specialist --- posted a brief comment at the end of the previous buggy article on US Exceptionalism, "The Mini-series Resumes", that deserves to be singled out here and a brief reply.

From John

Prof Bug:

On the social spending/welfare front, while you touch on a strong American preference for charitable spending compared to Europe --- [roughly $650 per American, compared to 1/10th that in the EU, buggy clarification] --- you don't directly address American volunteerism, which contributes huge economic value, even if not in dollar terms, to social welfare here. And from what I've read, the level of volunteerism here just isn't comparable to any where else (and amazing considering how much Americans work).

The Buggy Reply

US Volunteer Work: 63 Million

Many thanks for the query, John. Yes, it is impressive --- about 63 million Americans doing volunteer work of one sort of another last year: about 29% of the population above 16 years in age. The definition of such activity is unpaid work for an organization that helps others for non-profit. That could be anything from leading a Boy Scout or Brownie group or volunteering to help a charity or helping a group that brings food to sick people or that takes older people to clinics or shopping. Young people often work with school or church-related groups to help other young people, especially disadvantaged ones. Helping at the Humane Society or an animal shelter is another example, as is organizing a neighborhood Community Chess drive or working a half day at a boy's or girl's club.

Civil Society and Voluntary Associations
vs. The Top-Down Authority of Statist Systems

Keep in mind that as far back as the mid-1830s, Alexis de Toqueville was struck by the large numbers of voluntary associations that he found flourishing all over the US during his travels: in cities, small towns, and villages. Despite his worries as a European aristocrat visiting the first society in the world with a strong democratic government, egalitarian tendencies (which would eventually lead to the civil war and the destruction of slavery), and powerful individualism that could, if excessive, atomize the sort of more organic society he was accustomed to, he believed that the ease with which Americans of all stripes could create these voluntary groups for common ends would offset the worst of these tendencies. In particular, he found that there were groups to fight alcoholism, to aid immigrants, to help orphan kids, to fight against slavery, to push for civic reform, and so on. "Americans

of all ages, all stations of life, and all types of dispositions are forever forming associations," he observed. " . . . Nothing strikes a European traveler in the United States more than the absence of what we would call government or administration. ... There is nothing centralized or hierarchic in the constitution of American administrative power."

There was, it's only fair to add, a clear didactic lesson for Europe and especially France, which was witnessing radical revolutionary tendencies once more --- starting in the upheavals of 1830 --- that was Tocqueville's major fear. As the bloody excesses of the French Revolution in the 1790s had shown, radicalism at the grass roots would, sooner or later, merge with the top-heavy bureaucratic statism of the ancien regime and create, as with Napoleonic France, an aggressive, militarized society that threw Europe into two decades of total warfare (Napoleon praised lavishly by hs latest fawning admirer, the French Foreign Minister de Villepin). For Toqueville the antidote lay in the barely developed nature of decentralized state like that in the US: a small, constitutionally limited central government, strong federalism, strong local government, and a vast network of socially based voluntary associations.

In contemporary terms, we would call this "civil society" --- a precondition of an effective democratic country, political activism and authority organized upward from a powerful social base, as opposed to a more dubious, state-dominated electoral democracy . . . almost always organized in a top-down manner as in much of Pacific Asia these days, including even a long-standing democracy like Japan. Russia and Ukraine are perhaps the best examples of electoral democracies


Definitional Ambiguites

Note that the definition of volunteerism set out a few moments ago says nothing about helping individually, outside an organization, and for non-family members. For instance, Nancy --- my wife, who works for a visiting nursing association as a paid professional on the weekends --- regularly and on her own visits the rest of the week an elderly single woman and an elderly couple who live on our dead-in street, to see how they're doing. Alternatively, a single lady at the end of the street regularly organizes meetings for the neighbors --- with the local police representative present --- to talk about common problems that the neighborhood faces. Her help is unpaid, of course, and yet it contributes to neighborly interchange and a common commitment to look after one another in certain areas, such as noise and burglarly and landscaping.

And the stats are for those 16 and older. There are millions more no doubt of youth under 16 who do volunteer work of various sorts too. I regularly see them, for instance, in front of stores seeking contributions for some school-related organization. Every Saturday, a couple of dozen wash cars in front of the Boy's Club across the street from the High School in order to raise money for its activities. Several times a year, members of various High School and Junior High School athletic teams can be found sweeping the streets around their schools.

For that matter, at the local high school in Santa Barbara, all students have to take at least one course in unpaid public service. Is this unique? It would be surprising if that were the case.

One other complication. Another site that tracks volunteer work mentions over 80 million Americans doing unpaid volunteer work. Specifically:

* These organizations are becoming America´s management leaders because of their strat- egy and effectiveness of their boards. These organizations are practicing, what most American businesses only preach. In the motivation they are giving to their volunteers and in the productivity of knowledge workers they "produce", they are practicing what businesses will have to learn.

* Statistically the nonprofit sector is America´s largest employer. Over 80 million people work as a volunteer. They work in average nearly five hours each week in one or more nonprofit organizations. This is equal to 10 million full-time jobs and if this where paid volunteers they would earn $150 billion.

Who Volunteers: Education, Ethnicity

Interestingly, the US statistics supplied by the Bureau of Labor show that there is a clear correlation between education and volunteer work: almost half of college grads do some sort of volunteer work, whereas the figure drops to less than 10% for those who haven't graduated high school. You can find all the figures here: Volunteering in the US 2003

The stats also break down the volunteers into various ethnic categories. There is no doubt an overlap, though, between educational levels and ethnicity.



Commonly Found in Other English-Speaking Democracies

More generally, such volunteer work seems to be common to all the English-speaking countries. In Australia, with slightly different definitions of such work, it's actually a tad higher than here if the Bureau of Labor stats are used: the 63 million figure, not 80 million. In Canada and Britain, where the statistics aren't easily found --- as a five minute search on google showed --- it appears to be high too, but below the US levels. How much? That's a guess.

I can say that at Oxford, volunteer work and for that matter all sorts of student groups --- from intellectual societies to acting groups to athletic activities to journalism, as found even more in the US --- were common, whereas they seem almost totally non-existent on the Continent anywhere.

Which brings us to:

The Continentals

Is it high on the EU Continent? Again, I can't find statistics, but for what it's worth --- as someone who has studied and taught in Germany, Switzerland, and France --- it's probably much lower. In a country like France, where the guiding maxim is --- "faut se mefier", "gotta be on your guard" --- it seems to be on the upswing, but encounters widespread cultural norms of mistrust and wariness as well as statist bureaucratic organization of most of social life that seems to inculcate what a prominent Swedish economist, Assar Lindbeck, has described as "learned helplessness" . . . a tendency of people to give up some of their initiative and risk-taking to state bureaucrats, in return for promised social services. At the very tony, expensive condo-complex where Nancy and I lived in Bordeaux back in the mid-1970s, for instance, it took the tenants two years to organize a meeting to discuss a huge pot-hole in the driveway that had existed there when we had moved in, among the first to do so in that new complex built on the site of an old chateau inside the city limits.

Unlike in Britain, never mind the other English-speaking countries, universities on the Continent are essentially bereft of any student volunteer associations: no student government, no student newspapers or magazines or cultural journals, no intramural sports, no intellectual or cultural associations, few if any cinema clubs, no hiking clubs, or no student unions for that matter. In France, there were no student festivities of any sort either, such as dances; the danger apparently might be that different social classes and families with different backgrounds might actually commingle, something that apparently struck fear into the hearts of many students. Maybe most.

How much attitudes and behavior differ in Northern Europe, particularly Scandinavia with a Protestant-derived culture as opposed to Latin Catholic ones in France and the other Mediterranean countries or even Germany, is --- again --- something I can't say. German universities did have student fraternities at one point, maybe still do. In the past, they specialized in dueling matches where slashing one another's cheeks with a razor-sharp foil was a sign of manliness. [For Assar Lindbeck, see "Overshooting, Reform and Retreat of the Welfare State," De Economist 142 (1994), pp. 1-19. The journal, published in English, is located in Holland.]



What one can say is that Lindbeck's analysis --- that the extensive welfare state has substituted for family, local community, and neighborhood self-help, thanks to a kind of prolonged learned helplessness (his term) --- is common to those in Scandinavia who have lived as critics there. To clarify briefly: one of Sweden's most famous economists,

Lindbeck was once a member of the Social Democratic Party, only in the late 1980s to be left aghast at the continued expansion of the welfare state and endless regulations despite the noticeable slowdown of the Swedish rate of economic growth. Once one of the 3 or 4 richest countries in the world in per capita income, its economic dynamism had flagged amid high taxes, rigid labor markets, massive organization of the work force into competing interest groups vying with one another for an ever greater hand-out from the state --- plus a rapidly growing underground economy, somewhere between 15-20% of GDP and hence more than double that of the US's. In the upshot, it had slipped by the early and mid-1990s to 17th place. Since then, admirably --- drawing on its high levels of education in a fairly small cohesive country of 9 million (now being challenged by growing numbers of immigrant communities) --- the Swedish economy has shown more signs of vigor, but whether or not the "learned helplessness" Lindbeck referred to has declined isn't clear.


Disturbing Signs

One sign of its persistence: the low-levels of start-up businesses there (as in Finland and Germany), roughly 1 out of 40-50 adults creating such a business each year, compared to about 1/33 in Italy and Britain, and 1/11 in the US . . . the stats here set out in a UK/US study around 2000. See the buggy article on this a few weeks ago. In an era of rapid technological flux, the failure to create new start-ups is a big drawback. Big existing corporations hew to the status-quo, just like any other organization. It's no accident that 75% of the US Fortune 500 in the year 2000 didn't exist in 1975, just as the new Information-Age or Knowledge-Based Economy was getting into full-tilt swing.

The corresponding figure in Germany and France and Japan had hardly witnessed any changes over that 25 year period. (Again, I've no statistics for Sweden. It's a shame that an impressive company like Ericsson did run into so much trouble, to the point that it had to be salvaged by a merger with Sony. On the other hand, Nokia --- a new company next door in Finland --- remains one of the giant dynamos of the telecommunications global-game.)

Interestingly, in this same vein, the study also undertook survey work, and its results were surprising. Whereas about 1 out of 33 Britons, like Italians, undertook new businesses each year, such entrepreneurs were scorned on by the British public: something like 70% found them pushy and brazen, people who, essentially, didn't know their place in society. Obviously, we're dealing with the cultural remnants of a fairly hierarchical society, with a strong surviving aristocracy and monarchy, symbolically at least, with all the snobbery that goes along with it. By contrast, in Germany where only about 1 out of 50 citizens started a new business each year --- which meant hardly anyone in Germany knew personally an entrepreneur, rich or modest --- most respondents in the survey said they admired such initiative.


Another disturbing sign of its persistence?

The previous sign of learned helplessness --- or at least its twist in lack of business initiatives --- is grounded in good statistical work, including survey data. Here's an anecdotal one. It concerns Sweden, a society governed essentially by Social Democrats for over 7 decades except for a brief interlude in the mid-1980s.

When the Swedish Foreign Secretary was stabbed and killed in an upscale store last September in Stockholm, she ran screaming through the store after the initial stabbing, and apparently only one bystander made an effort to come to her aid. Remember, the attacker didn't have a gun, only a knife; yet most of the other shoppers stood around and did nothing . . . even though, presumably, they were horrified at what they were witnessing. Like the Dutch who thought they were immune to the kinds of political terror and assassination that shook Germany and Italy and France in the 1970s and 1980s --- and are returning there again, amid massive dislocating economic changes and social conflicts --- only to find that Pym Fortuyn, the populist professor of the libertarian right, was killed by some frazzled type, so the Swedes have had to examine why their culture as it changes has experienced so much violence and extremism the last few years.

But the main point is a question: why didn't more people in the department store come to her aid? Were they waiting for the police? Well, the police are more reactive than proactive: they can't by themselves prevent any one crime. Rightly or wrongly, going back to frontier conditions, Americans rely much more than other peoples in the industrial world on self-protection and local community associations like the one on our street that I mentioned earlier. Is this good or bad?


The US Vs. The EU In Crime Rates

Well, a comparison between the US and Sweden --- or for that matter the EU --- is revealing here. In the UN International Crime Victims' Survey --- undertaken every four years now since the late 1980s by a Dutch university and more accurate than Interpol police-gathered statistics on reported crime --- Americans ranked in the lower part of 17 industrial studied in the 2000 survey in rates of various crime. Sweden and Australia were ranked at the very top as suffering the worse rates, and Britain was third or fourth. France and Germany also ranked higher in crime too. [For the link and some extended commentary, see gordon-newspost . . . an earlier buggy analysis.]

Where Americans stood out, comparatively speaking, was in four categories:

1) Homicide: worse in the US than elsewhere by about 3 or 4:1.
2) An unusual trend of strong downward nature in violent crime.
3) The lowest worries in all 17 industrial countries when it came to going out in public places.
4) The greatest confidence along with Canada in the performance of our police.

Note in passing that the buggy prof will return to these comparisons in crime levels --- including more recent, up-to-date surveys --- later in this mini-series that is dealing with US exceptionalism, always for good or bad.


France As An Example

Come to that, here are two more anecdotal signs --- this one in France, taken from the time I was running a UC program at Bordeaux University and teaching there.

Each summer, the newly arriving UC students from all 8 campuses would assemble at a small university in Pau, a resort town in the Pyrenees about 130 miles south of Bordeaux, for six weeks to hone their linguistic skills. We would hire about 20 French students as teaching assistants, whose job would be to work with the students in small groups and run the language labs. They were a good bunch, those local French students: likeable, bright, carefully chosen by some professors on the faculty. What they did lack was an ability to generate any spontaneous cooperation for a common purpose: in particular, as they told me, to create a film-club that would rent films from a Parisian-based firm and show movies a couple of times a week in a university building. They asked if I would help. I said, sure --- sounds like a good idea. What I didn't know is that they expected me to do everything: talk to the dean, get a room, contact the firm in Paris, contact some higher-ups at the local newspaper in Pau for advertising etc. After listening to their problems, I suggested they meet, elect a leader and an assistant, divvy up the tasks, and meet again until these tasks --- hardly formidable undertakings --- were done. Total incomprehension. They weren't used to this at all. It would take a hierarchical authority to get them moving.

In the end, last I heard, the film club never got off the ground.

The second anecdotal sign is more amusing, and even more revealing. The second year I was at Bordeaux University, the President of Bordeaux III --- where the humanities and social sciences were lodged --- agreed to let a handful of French students start a student newspaper, itself a revolutionary development in that country . . . even though it would be only a weekly. An encouraging development too? Not as it turned out. In the first edition, a three-page affair, four-fifths of the first page had a blown up pornographic picture of two women engaged in very graphic oral sex. The editor and reporters, mind you, were university students, not little adolescents sticking their tongue out at authority. They stuck their tongues out all the same --- pun intended here --- and the result was predictable: the revolution last one issue.

Last I heard, there were no student newspapers anywhere in France.

Replies: 3 comments

Exceedingly good article. Thanks for the direction this am.

Posted by Kathryn Kirk @ 02/17/2004 12:00 PM PST

Check out the following report of a brit volunteering in Dean's campaign. http://www.guardian.co.uk/uselections2004/story/0,13918,1126346,00.html

Could it be that the people in Europe with bottom up DNA are just destined to leave and that is how the USA got a start.

Speaking of coming from another country , my limited experience with non European French is quite positive. Last year my wife and I took the last metro from Paris to Charles De Gaulle . It was midnight and the platform was packed. We were a minority of two. My wife was the only woman. Everyone else was from Africa and Indonesia. The question was , which train to take.When we asked the guy next to us he couldn't have been more helpful. And when the PA system changed the trains platform, the same guy came back to us to make sure we understood the message. And it didn't stop there . On board, headed towards De Gaulle people wanted to make sure we knew what stop to get off and how to find the hotel.


Steve, thanks for your remarks. I've stuck them in the latest buggy article, along with a lengthy reply.

Posted by Steve Shea @ 01/20/2004 04:42 PM PST

A lot of this is the reflection of whether direction for a society comes from the top down or the bottom up. France seems to be a classic top down country with the U. S. being the classic bottom up country. It is hard to imagine 75,000 (the number proportionate to the number who died in France last summer) people being allowed to die from the heat in the U. S. Too many people would do something for those near and in need without waiting for direction from a central authority. And if direction did come from a central authority, many would ignore it if it didn't make sense in their specific circumstances. The French seemed to have an "It's the government's responsibility" attitude about the disaster.

Voluntarism is a natural manifestation of your buggy points about Limited Welfare State, Cultural Values and Mistrust of Big Government. These derive from an axiomatic position on Responsibility. In the U. S. it lies with the individual, in France with the State. History seems clear which position is more durable. Would Weber be surprised?


Thank you Richard: these are stimulating comments. Thanks to them, you set me to thinking, always a danger for the buggy prof. In the upshot, I fleshed out the analysis you read earlier here with several added paragraphs . . . starting with the views of Tocqueville at the outset, then spinning out several sets of commentary about crime ratesm including self-help vs. learned helplessness in dealing with it (not that this exhausts a complicated subject we'll be taking up later in this mini-series on US exceptionalism).

At the very end, I also trotted out some more anecdotal observations about French life and tried in conclusion --- referring to the work of Michel Crozier, a French sociologist of note trained at the University of Chicago --- to put the anecdotal stuff in some theoretical perspective.

Oops, almost forgot to add: not only is your supposition about American social and medical services compared to the French sound, the French deuxieme chaine --- the television one beamed internationally every day --- specifically interviewed American authorities in New York and reported that a catastrophe on that level would be unthinkable here. It's unusual, believe me, to find the French reporting anything might actually be better in the US, but this was in late August --- when Chirac amid the disaster was desporting himself in Canada and most of the French government was elsewhere in the mountains or on the Riviera --- so the censors were probably off on vacation too.

Posted by Richard A. Heddleson @ 01/20/2004 12:35 PM PST