Those familiar with the history of American future know the United States is unique in having launched a "voluntarist" society. Those two travel abroad learn that few other cultures depend as largely as Americans do on individual initiative to meet social problems. By comparison, they have little dependence on centralization. More than other societies, they have counted on local groups to band together to meet their problems.
Why, then, does almost all the discussion of the Reagan administration's proposed budget suggest that any service cut from federal funding is lost? Legal aid, food stamps for the poor, support for the arts, and many others are worthy and needed projects. But the outcry seems to assume that it is federal funding from the central budget or nothing.
Have Americans become so addicted to federal funding in recent years that they assume there is no other way to support what they deem valuable? Every other form of funding is more difficult. Money that pours from central budgets does seem free. But do Americans lose something important in their society if they forget its past and its unique attempt to meet social needs by voluntary organizations and local efforts?
Voluntarism takes up time; committees are inherently inefficient. The odds are that the average American spends more time working for voluntary organizations than the average citizen of any other country. But this independence of spirit is something valuable, whatever its inefficiencies. It is costly in time and often questionable in its effectiveness, but Americans may be poorer if they lose that effort. Have they already gone too far toward central dependence to recover their original spirit?
The issue is how shall Americans rally to meet the needs in their society which they agree to be important, not whether a cut in the federal budget spells doom for some pet program. In fact, if Americans can't rally themselves to find alternative sources of support for nonfederally funded projects, it may mean that the value of these projects is questionable to begin with. Or it may mean that Americans' will to rally to meet community needs voluntarily has declined so far that it cannot be revived.
If so, they should ask themselves: is there anything unique left in the American spirit, and is its society really worth funding after all?