Near the middle of his second Inaugural Address, President Obama, in the midst of whats being viewed as a politically partisan speech, felt the need to tip his hat to sentiments with which he is not often associated. "Through it all," he said, referring to the broad swathe of American history, "we have never relinquished our skepticism of central authority, nor have succumbed to the fiction that all societys ills can be cured through government alone." There is, to be sure, little in Obamas record in office to indicate that such rhetoric is much more than a throwaway line, a tip of the hat to values he knows many Americans hold dear—even as he announced a series of significant new Washington-led initiatives.
But earlier in the Inaugural weekend, the Presidents actions actually spoke louder than those words—and reinforced them. On Saturday, he took part in the national Martin Luther King "Day of Service", one of thousands nationwide volunteering at a national buffet of charitable non-profits, from soup kitchens to community gardens. For his part, the President helped to refurbish a Washington, DC elementary school, applying some varnish to a classroom bookshelf. The atmospherics surrounding volunteering (the whole First Family was involved, as was Vice-President Biden) can seem saccharine or even self-righteous but make no mistake: the fact that such volunteering is actually as widespread as it is, and not just on an arbitrary Day of Service, does say much about the American system and, indeed, our belief in the limits of government.
The MLK Day of Service was promoted by the White House Office of National Service—but Americans have never needed government to urge them to volunteer, whether in community groups (think parent-teacher associations) or charitable non-profits (think Habitat for Humanity). Indeed, the federal Bureau of Labor Statistics reported in February, 2012, that, for the year previous, 64 million Americans volunteered their labor, most often in religious organizations but almost as often for "youth service" groups (think Boy Scouts and Girl Scouts). Overall, the BLS found that 26.8 percent of all adults (16 years and older) had volunteered (an increase over 2010). (The fall from 2009-10 was likely an effect of the recession).
Its not at all clear that President Obama sees such volunteering ( including his own), as a commentary about government, but it should, in fact, be seen that way, for a number of reasons. The sheer existence of such a wide range of charitably-supported organizations reflects the assumption, deeply-embedded in American society, that government, just as it cannot predict what new products and services might be offered by the private, for-profit sector, cannot imagine all the social needs which "social entrepreneurs" closely-attuned to whats going on in their own communities, identify.
Tocqueville put it this way:
"Americans of all ages, all conditions, and all dispositions, constantly form associations. They have not only commercial and manufacturing companies but associations of a thousand other kinds-religious, moral, serious, futile, enormous, or diminutive. The Americans make associations to give entertainments, to found seminaries, to build inns, to construct churches, to diffuse books; to send out missionaries; they found in this manner hospitals, prisons, and schools. Wherever, at the head of some new undertaking, you see the government in France, or a man of rank in England, in the United States you will be sure to find an association."
But Americans inclination to volunteer reflects deeper and more subtle views about government than just the matter of whether it is the agent of a project being undertaken in the first place. Theres the matter, too, of whether government can do things well or on its own. The very fact that President would be called on to help fix up a public elementary school is a reflection of the limits of the District of Columbias public education bureaucracy. (Of course, it is, to be fair, also true that the local school is a government institution that successfully engenders community support.)
Crucially, volunteerism, like that of the President, also reflects a belief in the limits of professionalism. The very idea that unpaid amateurs can and should supplement, or substitute for, paid professionals embodies the belief that the nature of the effort provided by volunteers is of a different, sometimes more desirable, character than that of the salaried union worker or social service technocrat. When community groups send out appeals for help, convince local merchants to volunteer supplies and staff the tables providing coffee and donuts for the volunteers, we create the social capital which the political scientist Robert Putnam has identified as crucial to healthy societies. (His famous example was that of the choral societies of northern Italy).
So, too, can the character of the service provided by volunteers contrast favorably with that of government social services. My own favorite current example of this kind is a group called Glamour Gals which started on Long Island but which now has some 68 chapters in 14 states. It brings together volunteer high school girls with much older women living in nursing homes or assisted living centers. Its work, at first glance, might seem silly: the teenagers (and in some places college students) provide make-up "makeovers", manicures and pedicures for the elderly. What happens, however, is the sort of spirit-lifting which no public social worker could likely provide. The older women have a reason to meet, and share their life experiences, with a new generation. The teenagers, for their part, get both the satisfaction of improving someones appearance but, often, unsolicited and useful advice. (This video about the Manhattan Institutes social entrepreneurship award program includes a section on Glamour Gals, featured also in the photo above.)
The Presidents mention of Americans understanding of the limits of government may have simply been lip service. Indeed, in the broad context of the speech, it felt that way. But the view that "societys ills cant be cured by government alone" runs deep in America—perhaps, he may find, deeper than he knows.
Original Source: http://www.forbes.com/sites/howardhusock/2013/01/23/obamas-inaugural-address-and-the-limits-of-government/