There’s a great post waiting to be written about Britain’s “Big Society” effort, the Conservative (and now Liberal) government’s attempt to patch over drastic government cuts with an optimistic program of social entrepreneurship. While waiting to write that, I found this article in the NYT about a village in Spain that has run out of money and relying on volunteers to
It didn’t take long for Manuel García Murillo, a bricklayer who took over as mayor here last June, to realize that his town was in trouble. It was 800,000 euros, a little more than $1 million, in the red. There was no cash on hand to pay for anything — and there was work that needed to be done.
But then an amazing thing happened, he said. Just as the health department was about to close down the day care center because it didn’t have a proper kitchen, Bernardo Benítez, a construction worker, offered to put up the walls and the tiles free. Then, Maria José Carmona, an adult education teacher, stepped in to clean the place up.
And somehow, the volunteers just kept coming.
But what has brought Higuera de la Serena a measure of fame in Spain is that the residents have stepped up where their government has failed.
The Times has been pretty savvy about pointing out the complexities of such stories, but this one reads uncharacteristically like a fairy tale. Volunteers cleaning up parks and planting trees is one thing, volunteers running jails and schools is quite another. Of course it’s wonderful to imagine people coming together to create a great society and improve public spaces and institutions. But often those efforts become their own justifications for removing government from the picture. And in many institutions, like public schools, the effort falls disproportionately on women and the consequences fall disproportionately on the poor.
In the U.S., PTA organizations spend all of their time raising money to pay for basic classroom supplies and activities, and they’re filled almost entirely by mothers. Calling that voluntary “participation” is a bit misleading: it’s more like unpaid servitude, with volunteers serving as toothless tax collectors. The wonderful thing about societies is that people will step up. But that can never be the whole story.