“If the government doesn’t do it, nobody else will.” How many times have we heard this as an argument for a particular government program? We have become so accustomed to government involvement in every aspect of our lives that it’s easy to forget there is another way. More often than not, if the government won’t do something, somebody else WILL do it – if it’s worth doing.

Here’s an example. The State of Michigan has been spending more than $1 million a year to support local physical fitness, health, and sports councils that develop fitness curricula and distribute educational material. Promoting the general physical fitness of citizens is the sort of program that only government will undertake, right?

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Wrong. Here is just one example of a similar program operating in the private sector with no government subsidies. Since 1996, General Motors and the United Auto Workers union have jointly supported their own “LifeSteps” program, which promotes sensible diets and exercise. More than 300,000 employees and families have used the program, which includes health screenings, educational programs, and a toll-free personal health advisor hot line.

Michigan has spent tax dollars on similar programs, but in the case of LifeSteps the work was done using private, voluntary funds – not tax dollars. The spur of market incentives likely concentrates the minds of LifeSteps managers. Unlike recipients of tax-funded grants, LifeSteps managers know their future funding depends on how well their program reduces GM and UAW productivity losses caused by injury and illness. Tax-funded programs too often are judged only by how much money is spent, how many brochures are distributed, or other political measures, rather than by objective assessments of their actual impact.

There is a broad term for this private, voluntary, non-coercive approach to dealing with societal problems. It’s called “civil society.” Instead of relying on institutions of government to provide social goods, participants in a civil society rely on private intermediary institutions such as the family, voluntary associations, religious groups, and commercial firms operating in a free-market economy.  When people rely on government to meet general needs, we call this “political society.”

Some might ask what’s wrong with conducting both types of fitness programs – government and private. Plenty. When government seeks to improve upon private intermediary institutions, it has a political incentive to create a sense that the problem is being solved, potentially causing citizens and private organizations to disengage. Government intervention also removes resources from private individuals and organizations through taxes, reducing their ability to fix problems themselves. So not only do government programs diminish the imperative for private action, they also take away the resources that fund private action. Government involvement also typically comes with onerous rules and regulations that end up impeding private efforts to deal with a given societal problem.

LifeSteps is an example of how civil society meets needs and solves a problem – general physical fitness in this case. It is a partnership between a private employer and its employee union. Efforts like LifeSteps are often successful because they address particular problems as close to the source as possible, rather than imposing top-down, cookie-cutter solutions proposed by government, or political society. Civil society works because it engages the voluntary, creative energies of free people.

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Jack McHugh is a legislative analyst and the project manager of MichiganVotes.org, a comprehensive web-driven legislative database operated as a free public service by the Mackinac Center for Public Policy.