The Wal-mart Solution

May 7, 2011

by Jerry O’Driscoll

Who should provide disaster relief? Who does provide disaster relief? In the Weekend Wall Street Journal, David Beito of the University of Alabama provides the answer for the victims of the devastating tornado in Tuscaloosa: it’s Wal-mart, churches, students, private individuals and, critically, talk radio.

The four Tuscaloosa Clear Channel stations organized a wholly voluntary relief effort. Beito recounts how, instead of taking Spring break, “students in the Greek system at the University of Alabama and historically black Stillman College stayed to cook more 7,000 meals per day.” The radio stations take calls from individuals in need and broadcast what is needed, by whom and where. Sometimes within minutes volunteer assistance arrives.

Clear Channel caters mainly to a conservative white audience, but the damage was concentrated in black and Hispanic neighborhoods. No matter.

The relief effort is exemplar for the spirit of voluntarism that typifies America. It was repeated in the aftermath of Katrina, when the federal government so utterly failed. FEMA was not only incompetent, but interfered with private relief efforts. The Baptist Church did more than the federal government.

Private efforts were critical even in relief efforts at the Pentagon on 9/11. Costco customers were asked to purchase pallets of water, which Costco then had delivered at its expense to the site. (Costco’s customers received personal recognition from the Pentagon.)

David Beito authored From Mutual Aid to the Welfare State: Fraternal Societies and Social Services. He demonstrated how charity and welfare were once provided through voluntary associations. Often the poor funded their own services.

I’d actually been thinking of Beito’s work as a result of a discussion of Hayek’s Constitution of Libertyat Coordination Problem. Hayek is often criticized for ceding so many responsibilities to the state. But the Anglo/American tradition of voluntarism is not replicated on the European Continent. How likely is it that someone who did not grow up in that tradition could conceive of what individuals can accomplish on their own without the state? Even today’s Americans forget until something like Tuscaloosa happens.

5 Responses to “The Wal-mart Solution”

  1. Richard Ebeling Says:

    Jerry,

    Your point about voluntarism in America or Great Britain versus the European continent is well taken.

    Historian Peter Gay, in his book, “Schnitzler’s Century: The Making of Middle Class Culture, 1815-1914” (2002), contrasts the British spirit of charity and voluntary association to fund libraries, museums and public monuments in Great Britain, in comparison to the Germans who would petition or wait for governments to provide and fund such “social” projects.

    Richard Ebeling

  2. Richard Ebeling Says:

    One further more modern example. Last year a number of wealthy Americans, including Bill Gates, and Warren Buffitt, made a “pack” to leave a good portion of their individual, private fortunes to charities.

    Shortly after this was announced, the German news weekly, “Der Speigel,” asked some leading German businessmen if they, too, would be willing to undertake such a mutual agreement to leave portions of their personal fortunes to various private charities.

    Virtually all of them replied, “No.” Why? Because they considered such matters to be the duty and responsibility of the State. And who were they, “mere” private individuals, to presume to have the professional knowledge and ability to allocate their own money for private charity? That required bureaucratic “experts” qualified to distribute such funds from taxes collected!!

    Richard Ebeling

  3. chidemkurdas Says:

    Government agencies and programs tend to crowd out private solutions–Richard Epstein points this out for legal rules vs. social norms, in Principles for a Free Society. This appears to have happened early in continental Europe. That would explain the presumption that the government will provide the relief.


  4. Frédéric Bastiat wrote in two instances about the “Sociétés de secours mutuel”, literally ‘Societies of mutual aid’, in chapter XIV of _Harmonies économiques_ and in chapter IV of _Sophismes économiques_. I don’t know much about those outside of what Bastiat wrote, but it seems to me like it could be close to Beito’s Fraternal societies, and be a European version of American “voluntaryism”..?

    In any case there is no doubt that those are nowhere to be seen here nowadays. I wouldn’t know about Germany/Austria at the beginning of the century.


  5. I think Chidem is correct. State welfare crods out ptivate charity. Compehensive welfare came first in Germany, only later in Britain and still later in the US. The US still relies a great deal on private giving.

    The effect shows up in religion also. State-support of religion ended early in the US. The market for religion became competitive and churches relied on voluntary donations. Consequently, they catered to their parishoners’ demand not the government’s. That was the beginning of Americans’ turn to religion.


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