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Published onMay 26, 2020

“Thousand points of light,” sneered President Trump at a 2018 rally. “I never quite got that one. What the hell is that? Has anyone ever figured that one out?”1

But George H. W. Bush’s metaphor was absolutely clear and almost absolutely right. Here he is, accepting the nomination at the 1988 GOP Convention:

we’re a nation of community, of thousands and tens of thousands of ethnic, religious, social, business, labor union, neighborhood, regional and other organizations, all of them varied, voluntary and unique.

This is America: the Knights of Columbus, the Grange, Hadassah, the Disabled American Veterans, the Order of Ahepa, the Business and Professional Women of America, the union hall, the Bible study group, LULAC, Holy Name—a brilliant diversity spread like stars, like a thousand points of light in a broad and peaceful sky.2

It’s a lovely paean to what some call civil society. It corrects the pinched vision of those who think state and market comprise society, that that’s all there is, and no, it’s still terribly pinched if you add only family. It helps us see how we’re vibrantly different individuals precisely because of how richly diverse our social landscape is. With a thousand points of light beckoning, your path won’t be the same as mine.

In the background of Bush’s metaphor is Alexis de Tocqueville’s Democracy in America. In the mid-1800s, Tocqueville was struck by how readily Americans formed associations: “Americans of all ages, all conditions, all minds constantly unite. Not only do they have commercial and industrial associations in which all take part, but they also have a thousand other kinds: religious, moral, grave, futile, very general and very particular, immense and very small; Americans use associations to give fêtes, to found seminaries, to build inns, to raise churches, to distribute books, to send missionaries to the antipodes; in this manner they create hospitals, prisons, schools.” No idle daydream here, just a panorama of bustling activity.

But here’s Tocqueville’s glimpse of a nightmarish future. Americans grow increasingly absorbed in their own narrow concerns, more lackadaisical about associating. Egoism, celebrated by Stirner and Rand, is actually a lethal threat. “Each of them, withdrawn and apart, is like a stranger to the destiny of all the others.” Then the government starts colonizing the terrain that associations had inhabited. With “immense tutelary power,” it treats citizens as children who never grow up. No Peter Pan fantasies here, just grim realism: The government “willingly works for their happiness; but it wants to be the unique agent and sole arbiter of that; it provides for their security, foresees and secures their needs; facilitates their pleasures, conducts their principal affairs, directs their industry, regulates their estates, divides their inheritances; can it not take away from them entirely the trouble of thinking and the pain of living?”3

What should government do? And what should we leave people to do on their own—or together, by associating? When we debate those crucial policy questions, we argue about whether government bureaucracies are all horribly inefficient, about the differences between the poor receiving social welfare payments as a matter of entitlement and their getting private charity as a matter of grace, and so on. With the right answers to those policy questions, remember, I have nothing to do. But one characteristic mistake clouds these debates and I’d like to dispel it.

Bush, I said, was almost absolutely right. Here’s what he got wrong: All those tens of thousands of organizations, he said, are voluntary. Tocqueville doesn’t actually say that, though many believe he does. One of a zillion instances: Presenting his Volunteer Action Awards in 1987, President Reagan invoked Tocqueville. Without missing a beat, he moved to celebrating American altruism. Then he pivoted to challenging those worried about a new American selfishness: “Somehow freely given, personal charity doesn't count for them; only the public dole, bureaucratic largess that is backed up by coercive powers of the state.”4 The political mistake is sliding easily from society to voluntary action, from government to coercion. That slide provides powerful ammunition for critics of government programs.

Tocqueville aside, others gleefully offer more sweeping rhapsodies to voluntary social life. Defending religious toleration, the great classical liberal John Locke declares, “A church then I take to be a voluntary society of men, joining themselves together of their own accord, in order to the public worshipping of God, in such a manner as they judge acceptable to him, and effectual to the salvation of their souls.” In case you blinked, Locke repeats himself: “I say it is a free and voluntary society.”5

I’ve long been fond of the stirring cadences of Auberon Herbert, unjustly neglected but prized by libertarians. “We, who call ourselves voluntaryists, appeal to you to free yourselves from these many systems of state force, which are rendering impossible the true and happy life of the nations of today.” Assailing “the huge overweighted groaning machine of government,” Herbert implores his reader, “Refuse to be spoon-fed, drugged and dosed, by the politicians.” “The victory,” he continues, “comes of our own climbing of the hills, not by sitting in the plain, with folded hands, watching those others who profess to do our business for us.”6 He grasps Tocqueville’s nightmare, but his dream isn’t limited to a certain kind of social association. Whittle that groaning machine down to size, make its sole job punishing the use of force and protecting property rights, and enjoy the bliss of voluntaryism in social life. As I say, I’ve long been fond of his language. Too bad it’s desperately misguided.

I’ll rush to concede—no, to emphasize—the obvious. Governments raise taxes by coercion. (Herbert looked forward to making taxation voluntary, but you’ll be forgiven for dismissing that whimsy.) Governments put people in prison. They claim the right to punish them with death. Ours used to claim the right to conscript men to serve in the military, to send them abroad to serve—and die—in war. But your neighborhood reading group can’t make you join, can’t make you read the books, can’t jail you when you show up without cookies. The contrast is real. But it’s also lopsided.

Government programs can be voluntary. Take the local public library. You can go there to read a book or cruise the web. You can show up for an evening lecture or a jazz recital. You can borrow books and read them at home. These days, you can even borrow e-books. You can haul your toddler to story-telling. No one forces you to do any of those things.

Or take recycling programs. I suppose the government could mandate recycling, and in the right mood—the wrong mood?—I can even conjure up the menacing image of voyeuristic government agents feverishly rifling through your trash bags, triumphantly seizing a contraband plastic yogurt container, and implacably frogmarching you into the outstretched arms of the green gestapo. But even actual instances of recycling enforcement gone mad wouldn’t reveal the essential nature of government programs. It would just remind us that, like every other actor in the world, governments can be stupid. Ordinarily, recycling programs are voluntary. If you’re willing to sort your trash or to drop off your bottles and boxes, the government will recycle them. (Or ship them to Asia to be burnt. But that’s another matter.)

You don’t have to explore the national parks. You don’t have to work out in the county recreation center. You don’t have to ride on Amtrak. Are these examples too slight or frivolous to matter? I don’t see why. Try this: The government builds roads, bridges, and tunnels, but it doesn’t require you to drive. Nor does it tell you where to drive, as if some centralized state agency were to grind out plans for hapless, hopeless, helpless victim-citizens: “This year, comrade, you shall take your family vacation in Ithaca, New York. Here is your mandated route. Do not detour. We are monitoring you by GPS and will ruthlessly punish even the slightest infractions.”

A couple of other confusions haunt these debates, and even though they’re not the same as the mistake I’m out to dismantle here, I’ll pause to consider them. (If a little book has room for digressions, that room is cramped.) “But such programs are funded by taxes! I have to pay for them whether I use them or not!” They needn’t be: The government can run lotteries and leave it up to you whether to buy a ticket; it can charge user fees for some services, tolls for bridges and parkways. “But government programs are redistributive!” You bet, and not only social welfare programs. A handful of people are heavy users of the library, a bigger group occasional users, but most taxpayers never use the library, even though they’re paying for it. In fiscal year 2017, New Jersey paid almost $25 billion more in federal taxes than it got back from the feds, while New Mexico got back over $20 billion more than it paid—over $9,600 per lucky duck.7 But all kinds of private schemes are redistributive, too. You and I pay the same premiums for fire insurance, but your house burns down and mine never does. If everyone faithfully tithes at church and the church spends money on various community services, some people are paying in a lot more than they get back. Private colleges’ bloated tuition fees are sticker prices. Some students pay them in full; others get scholarships.

Back to the main event. It’s a mistake to think government action deprives people of voluntary choice. Even some government mandates, underwritten by coercion, leave people real alternatives. You have to provide your child an education. But almost a century ago, the Supreme Court held that it’s unconstitutional to force you to send your child to a public school.8 You can choose a private school or a parochial school, or you can homeschool your child. You have to educate your child: That much isn’t voluntary. But you get to choose how: That much is voluntary. If you’re tempted to seize on the first point as the really real, the deep truth of government action, and to dismiss the second as a mere distraction, you should think about why you’re tempted.

So not all government action is coercive. Still, a relentless focus on government coercion would be illuminating if society—Bush’s thousand points of light, Tocqueville’s associations, all the rest of the social landscape besides the government—were voluntary through and through. But it’s not. Not even close.

Let’s start with work. We think of him as the champion of free markets, but Adam Smith unflinchingly cast labor markets as involuntary. No purring about supply and demand here: “The workmen desire to get as much, the masters to give as little, as possible. The former are disposed to combine in order to raise, the latter in order to lower, the wages of labour. It is not, however, difficult to foresee which of the two parties must, upon all ordinary occasions, have the advantage in the dispute, and force the other into a compliance with their terms.” Masters—we’d say employers—can “outlast” workers who don’t work; they have more wealth. And “the masters, being fewer in number, can combine much more easily: and the law, besides, authorizes, or at least does not prohibit, their combinations, while it prohibits those of the workmen.” No purring about the invisible hand, either. Instead, an unabashed indictment of collusion: “Masters are always and everywhere in a sort of tacit, but constant and uniform combination, not to raise the wages of labour above their actual rate.”9 Today, some celebrate right-to-work laws as rescuing workers from coercive union membership and dues. But those laws disempower workers. As Smith saw, unless workers combine to pursue their interests, employers can force them to submit. Has the workplace changed since then? Sure. Is Smith’s analysis still incisive? Sure.

Unless you’re a trust fund baby, you’ve got to work for a living. (More accurate, unless someone in your household is independently wealthy, or someone outside it keeps sending you money, someone has to work. But let’s suppose that you’re that someone.) If the job market is good and if you have skills in demand, you’ll have choices. So the situation is exactly the same as the government’s requirement that you school your child. You have to work: That much isn’t voluntary. But you get to choose how: That much is voluntary. If you’re tempted to seize on the second point as the really real, the deep truth of social or market relations, and to dismiss the first as a mere distraction, you should think about why you’re tempted.

So you have to work. And if you’re lucky, you get to choose which job to take. But now consider your day on the job. How voluntary is it? Do you choose what to do? Or does your employer, a manager, a foreman, a supervisor—a boss, as we say, and come on, honestly, do you want to tie yourself up like a pretzel and argue that being bossed around is a kind of voluntary action? Some workers are lucky. They decide what to do, when to do it, how to do it, and they get paid. But not even everyone enjoying the dignified status of a professional gets to do that. Your doctor doesn’t decide how many minutes she gets with each patient. In other workplaces, you might have to punch a clock. You might get docked pay for returning three minutes late from your lunch break. You might be told how often you can go to the bathroom—or whether you can go to the bathroom. That’s no paranoid flight of left-wing fancy: “Nabisco once threatened its female production line workers with three-day suspensions for using the bathroom, and ordered them to urinate in their clothes instead.”10 Poultry workers are routinely denied bathroom breaks. Some pee on themselves; others wear diapers.11 Or you might discover that it’s impossible to meet your production quota if you do go to the bathroom. Congratulations! Management trusts you to be responsible enough to connect the dots on your own.

Governments abuse their authority; so do employers. Your employer might taunt you with racist comments. He might announce that if you don’t sleep with him, you won’t get promoted or you will get fired. He might cheerfully overlook your coworkers’ pulling the same stunts; he might even encourage them. The law now bans many such acts, and if whenever you contemplate the matter, your political liturgy stubbornly sends you back to that well-thumbed page with the wearying refrain about the heavy hand of government regulation crushing the delicate free market, that paradise of voluntary action, you need to wrest free of the confines of your faith. Even when such acts are illegal, plenty of workers find it thankless or worse to file complaints and pursue remedies. They swallow hard and put up with the crap. They have to. They have no reasonable alternatives.

No wonder “Take This Job and Shove It” became a hit. Workers are governed at work, often harshly, often with little or no voice in shaping the terms on which they work. Your boss isn’t the government, but you’re governed just the same. Private government isn’t an oxymoron. It’s an everyday fact of social life. That’s true beyond the confines of the workplace. It’s true for a reason you know all too well, a reason you’ve known your whole life, a reason you’re reminded of every single day, a reason you take for granted even if you’re dazed by the thousand points of light: Authority is a central feature of one social institution after another.

Parents exercise authority over children. They claim the right to tell them what to do. They don’t just claim the right, they also exercise it, day in and day out: No, you may not pour chocolate syrup on your Cheerios. Stop pulling the cat by the tail. You can’t go to the movies until you finish your trigonometry homework. If you come home drunk one more time, we will send you to a juvenile boot camp. When children submit, they aren’t acting voluntarily. They can challenge their parents’ authority. They can pour chocolate syrup on their Cheerios and face the consequences. And—were you suckered by Max Weber’s claim that the state claims a monopoly on the legitimate use of physical force?12—parents are free to respond with “corporal punishment.” But you can break the government’s laws and face the consequences, too.

I was about to say that no one can make you go to church, but that’s wrong. Your parents can. If you’re brought up in a faith, there too you will be submitting to authority, at least for a good long while. You don’t know how to approach the sacred texts, what attitudes and postures to strike in prayer, how to perform your duties as a faithful believer: You need to be instructed. Eventually, Congregationalists will have a kind of democratic voice in governing themselves that is officially denied to Catholics. The variations are endless, all the more striking when we add Buddhism, Hinduism, Islam, and Judaism, and yes, that list could be a whole lot longer. But you’ll search in vain for a religious faith where from the moment you’re an initiate, your choices are sweepingly voluntary.

You can abandon your faith. That, too, is part of religious freedom. Millions do. But that choice is fraught with weighty consequences: the stern disapproval of those you love, the loss of precious friends and community. Sometimes people who’ve lost belief, who’ve come to feel like strangers in what used to be their home, soldier on anyway. They chant the prayers and do their desperate best to conceal the sense that they’re choking on sawdust. Or they mumble the prayers while daydreaming. Leaving, they testify, is unworkable, impossible, devastating.

But then staying isn’t exactly voluntary, is it? Sounds like divorce as a way out of marriage, and if you know couples you think probably should have divorced, you also know unhappy couples who made the right call, the inevitable call, and stuck it out for dreary years of sullen combat. Then again, if you flout some requirement of the faith, you might find yourself chastened or counseled—or shunned or excommunicated. The requirements are enforced. It is airy nonsense to dismiss the crushing sanctions by saying you can always find a new church. “A free and voluntary society”? No way.

News flash: You didn’t get to choose what family you were born into. You’re stuck with those people for a good long while, with their charms and quirks, their sterling integrity and their outright malice, with your dad’s irascible temper, your sister’s heavy drinking, your uncle’s lewd embraces. News flash: You didn’t get to choose what language you grew up speaking. News flash: You didn’t get to choose where you grew up, whether you were surrounded by the Smokeys or smokestacks, strip malls or strip clubs. All those were thrust upon you. They helped make you the person you are. Can you abandon them, reshape yourself? Maybe. But you might never have the opportunity.

Teachers tell students what to do. The instructions start early, in fine-grained detail. Sit in that chair, dear. No wiggling in your seats, class. Criss-cross applesauce for story time! They continue all the way through graduate education. First-year students must enroll for no fewer than ten and no more than fifteen credit hours per semester. Reaction papers for seminar are due Fridays at 4:00pm, no excuses permitted. In my graduate program, the “flimsy”—a pamphlet written in the sort of turgid prose you’d expect from a Bulgarian bureaucrat struggling in his fourth semester of English as a second language—droned on, one forbidding and opaque instruction after another.

When you’re a student, do you have voluntary choices? Scads of them, some grimmer than others: who to sit next to in the lunchroom, which elective classes to take, what to write your paper on, what to major in, what kind of loan to take out, which work-study job is least appalling. And those choices are always woven together with constraints and requirements: how many credits you need for the major, what scores you have to get on which tests to advance, the GPA you have to maintain to qualify for your scholarship or for your sports team. Those choices can open future options for you: Major in computer science and you can code for a living. They can close off future options: Pile up crushing debt and you can’t buy an apartment or start a family.

Take any social institution you like and you’ll find a mix of voluntary choices and constraints. Why don’t you start with the Knights of Columbus, first on Bush’s list? They work with the wonderful Habitat for Humanity, they answer to the Catholic Church, they have a supreme knight and a supreme chaplain and a governance structure.13 Just take the kinds of remarks I’ve been offering and apply them yourself, to uncover what is and isn’t voluntary about the Knights, or while you’re at it about Habitat.

As you do, note that I haven’t let myself be hypnotized by some single magic moment, say by whether you have to be a member of the association or whether you choose to join. Even that magic moment doesn’t mean what fans of Tocqueville imagine, that the government is quintessentially coercive. If you don’t like how your town or state is governed, you can move. If you’re lucky, you can leave your country, too, and go to a new one. And you get conscripted into some social groups whether you like it or not. You might find your race boring, but plenty of others are keenly interested, and their views are going to affect you whether you like it or not. They can assign you to a racial group and make the assignment stick.

After you’re in the group, however you got there, you should also want to know what the rules do and don’t permit you to do, what choices are genuinely yours. And you should want to know what voice, if any, you have in shaping the rules. If there’s a sacred text, or a body of governing elders, or reverence for tradition, you’re stuck with the rules. Some institutions give you a voice. But in a democracy, you get to be a citizen. You can vote, you can argue with others and help shape public opinion, you can show up at school board and zoning commission meetings and make your views loud and clear, you can work on a campaign, you can run for office yourself.

Worried about turning people into mere subjects, obliged to follow the rules as they are? Excited about giving people opportunities to decide on the rules? Score one for democratic government. Stop demonizing it as the enemy of voluntary association, and start noticing where social institutions and associations aren’t giving people choices.


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