The Choice of the Citizen: Pay Taxes, Do Without, or Volunteer

By Susan J. Ellis

I ended 2009 with a Hot Topic titled “When the Ax Falls: Budget Cutting and Volunteers.” In the year since then we have all continued to deal with a disastrous world economy, out-of-control national debt, rampant unemployment, and governments everywhere forced to cut services. Apologies for beginning 2011 on a down note, but it’s time to acknowledge some key ethical considerations – and contradictions – facing the volunteer community.

Consider this end-of-year news story out of California: "In Pleasantville, It's Volunteer versus Union," explained by Pete Peterson, Executive Director, Davenport Institute for Public Engagement and Civic Leadership at Pepperdine's School of Public Policy. In a nutshell, war has been declared between the various labor unions in the Petaluma school district and anyone trying to volunteer in the schools out of concern for student needs. "Caught between the volunteers and the union, district leadership is forced into an Orwellian role as referee – seeking to pacify [both], while important positions that could be taken by local residents remain unfilled because of the budget cuts."

Let’s examine the principles that are at stake here because, although the rhetoric may be spiraling out of control in this California community, the situation will continue to present itself in many places. In the tug of war between paid-jobs-are-the-highest-good and taxpayers-have-the-right-to-volunteer, the leader of volunteer involvement is caught in the middle (and the one most likely to be torn apart).

Business vs. Public Jobs

Paid jobs are central to individual survival and to maintaining a country’s economy. No argument here. But there are important differences between for-profit, nonprofit, and public sector employment we cannot overlook: the source of revenue, who really controls spending, and consumer choice are critical factors in creating and keeping jobs.

The stakeholders in the business world are distinct groups of people. Employees do the work. Often represented by labor unions, they can agitate for better working conditions and higher pay. The company’s owners (stockholders) and top managers can negotiate how income will be distributed. Customers of the business choose whether to buy its product or service, get by without it, or make it themselves. The company succeeds or fails based on how well it meets the needs of the market or convinces people to buy.

But this is not how government operates. It is understandable that public employees want job security and more money, but organized labor cannot apply the same job-protection tactics that work in business. They must accept a fundamental fact: no public service official has control over the amount of revenue available through taxes. It’s legislators who levy taxes, decide what government services will be mandated, and appropriate funds. Further, government moves at a glacial pace. New legislation does not affect operations until months or even years after it is signed.

The "owners" of government are the taxpayers who have three options for managing government: they vote approval or disapproval of the legislators to whom they have delegated decision-making powers; they pay their taxes honestly; and they engage in active, participatory democracy. The latter can be done in many ways, one of which is choosing to volunteer to help deliver public services.

Taxpayers are also government’s "customers" who ultimately decide how many public services they want to "buy." If the citizenship isn't willing to pay more taxes and is willing to live without or with less services, employees have to be laid off.

Ultimately, a for-profit business can go bankrupt and a government can default and close down. This ends all jobs in either setting.

The Role of Volunteers in Public Services

"The business of business is business." The bottom line rules and individuals make a profit.

This is anathema to government. Leaving aside corruption or officials on the take, the purpose of government is to provide services for the good of the community. As both the owners and consumers of government, taxpayers have the right to act in the public sphere, beginning with voting for or against taxes to pay public employees. Reducing the size of the government payroll, however, does not change the need for services.

In some cases, for-profit companies or nonprofit agencies can fill the gap when government cannot – but only if there is a market of paying customers or available funders and donors. Or we learn to do without. Or…we take personal responsibility for making sure that critical obligations are met. Even if the ultimate goal is restoring funding and re-hiring, some citizens cannot sit back and wait, especially at the expense of children and people in real need. So taxpayer volunteers roll up their sleeves.

When a public labor union protests the work of volunteers it is elevating the demands of its workers – themselves taxpayers, it should be noted – above the rights of all citizens to give their time in service to their community. I realize that this is a simplistic distillation of many issues, but the ethical questions seem clear:

  • Many government services are fundamental to maintaining the quality of daily life. Is it ever legitimate to effectively shut down government services to meet the demands of its employees at the expense of the governed?
  • What is role of society when it comes to employment? Does everyone have a right to a job and does the citizenship have an obligation to make sure this happens?
  • In the California story, labor officials openly state their opposition to any volunteering in the public schools even if motivated by helping children. When are ends more important than means? Whose needs take priority and who decides?
  • If taxpayers are willing to give time and talent to ensure the delivery of critical government services – with the caveat that such citizens are capable of performing the work properly – how can they legitimately be barred from doing so?
  • In the United States, the Fair Labor Standards Act is generally (mis)quoted in these sorts of situations. The FLSA was originally enacted in 1938 to apply only to for-profit business, largely to limit child labor and institute minimum wage and overtime pay levels. It has been amended no less than 47 times since1(including extended to apply to state and local government). Is it time for the volunteer community to challenge how the FLSA is being interpreted in terms of volunteer participation in public sector and nonprofit employment?
  • When did holding a job with government become a right superseding the rights of taxpayers to step forward in an economic crisis? To whom are public employees accountable?

Peterson states it all succinctly at the end of his article:

As local government budgets creak under the weight of the "new normal", we are beginning to see this "[falling] back" happening again throughout the country. For public sector union leaders the question will be: are you part of the solution, or part of the problem?

I’m sure I’ve touched some nerves out there. So now it’s your turn to share what you think –or are torn between.

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