As the covid-19 pandemic spreads and unemployment spikes, volunteers are revving up their sewing machines to produce homemade masks. There are calls for fabric stores to donate supplies. Others gather donations of personal protective equipment to match to hospitals in need. Mayors and governors partner with philanthropists, urging citizens to support funds to sustain nonprofit organizations and create new loan programs for small businesses.
Amid the crisis, these responses are celebrated as evidence of civic virtue and generosity. The outpouring of individual contributions produces feel-good stories of everyday altruism and the large-scale efforts are described in the business-friendly language of public-private partnerships. But we are also witnessing the revival of a form of collaboration that embodies a long and conflicted history of attitudes toward government. Crises produce calls for volunteers because voluntarism is a key component of the limited government that Americans have built over the past two centuries.
After gaining independence from the British Empire, the challenge was to build a state without the centralized bureaucracy or standing armies that threatened political liberty as it was understood by the Founding Fathers. The result was an “expansible state” that depended on the mobilization of private efforts. This arrangement was advocated by defenders of states’ rights who preferred local militias and private slave patrols to a large national army.
Some supporters of the Union cause in the Civil War came to the same conclusion for very different reasons. They saw military hierarchy as despotic and, therefore, a threat to the civic virtue of soldiers. Voluntarism, they argued, would enable a “free people” to “conduct a long war” by containing the power of a centralized military. One of these voluntary groups, the U.S. Sanitary Commission, was credited with making “the armies of the world the armies of the people and not of kings.” As floods and fire followed war, and the Civil War was succeeded by world wars, the formula was generalized: The people will care for the people.