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.
During World War I, this reliance on volunteers continued. Americans of all sorts — old women and men, children, movie stars, recent immigrants — knit socks, rolled bandages, made preserves and subscribed to Liberty Loans. These voluntary efforts produced goods needed for war and for postwar relief. In the process, they sustained popular commitment and the promise (if not always the reality) of national solidarity even after victory had been declared. Veterans of civic committees for unemployment relief and disaster response managed the knitting and fundraising.
Mutual aid and volunteering were necessary, but not sufficient. The same was true of the efforts of public agencies and officials. Voluntarism and volunteering were not alternatives to government, but rather they were necessary parts of the machinery.
Grounded in a powerful culture of civic association, this recipe for mobilizing in response to a large-scale crisis also required a distinctive kind of leadership. Few were as skilled in this choreography of voluntarism as Herbert Hoover. During the First World War, his managerial skills were on display: He aided the evacuation of American citizens from Europe in 1914 and then organized food relief to occupied Belgium, an operation described as “a piratical state organized for benevolence.” To provide food for children in Europe, the effort raised $77 million through a combination of congressional appropriations, multiple religious charities, “the Hungarian and Polish societies, the Y.M.C.A., and the Knights of Columbus.” As secretary of commerce, Hoover spearheaded the public-private response to the Great Mississippi Flood of 1927, earning the title of his presidential campaign film: “Master of Emergencies.”
But despite this record of success, Hoover’s leadership was not enough to overcome the widespread drought and unemployment that became the Great Depression. That failure was so profound and so ingrained in our history that it is difficult now for us to see why Hoover was once celebrated for his disaster leadership. Instead, we tend to focus on the dark side of voluntarism: the ways that private efforts reproduce inequalities, most evident in the recurring racial disparities in disaster response; the absence of accountability and oversight from elected officials and civil servants; the scandals fueled by the suspicion that someone, somewhere is profiting off the generosity of the American people.
Opposing government to free markets and private voluntarism, these developments have squeezed out much of the space for a choreographed mobilization of public agencies, firms, nonprofit organizations and individual volunteers. The politics of the 1930s hardened the opposition between proponents of free markets or voluntarism against those intent on building a much stronger national state. This opposition to the expansion of government capacity intensified with the Cold War, limiting the growth of the federal workforce even as policy mandates and spending grew. The Defense Production Act is a piece of the resulting machinery, as are programs that fund services through private providers, whether physicians serving Medicare patients, military contractors or for-profit prisons.
These patterns persist into our own time of austerity and privatization. Congress has repeatedly expanded the reach of national government while restricting its capacity to deliver services directly and respond independently to crises. As a consequence, the United States continues to depend on the co-production of governance by voluntary associations and, particularly over the course of the 20th century, by firms.
But although the connective tissue enabling such civic collaboration has atrophied, it has not disappeared. As states and cities mobilize their responses to the covid-19 pandemic, this feature of American governance is highlighted once again. Immediate challenges, such as housing the homeless and expanding hospital capacity produce rapidly mobilized coalitions of public agencies, nonprofit groups, health-care corporations, unions, private firms and volunteers making medical masks on their sewing machines. Already, we can recognize those leaders able to choreograph the complex coalitions mobilized in a crisis as well as the generosity of citizen volunteers.
For some, all these efforts are just more evidence of the hollowing out of government capacities after decades of underfunding and privatization. We hear variations on a question asked by Louisa Lee Schuyler, one of the leaders of the voluntary mobilization of the Civil War: “What is the govt doing? Why can’t it do all?”
The answer remains that, for better or worse, American government has been built without the excess capacity required in a crisis. This long-standing political choice has been aggravated by the current combination of federal vacancies, high levels of turnover among public officials and failures of planning. The current crisis provides an opportunity to revisit these questions. How might we rebuild a government that combines greater state capacity with retooled mechanisms for mobilizing private firms and voluntary groups? How can we cultivate a renewed appreciation for the leadership involved in operating this complex civic machinery while defending principles of democratic equality and accountability?