Service to the American People or to the American State?

One of the most persistent utopian visions over the last century and more is national service. By “national service” proponents never mean service to Americans. The United States long has been famous for the willingness of its people to organize to help one another and respond to social problems. Alexis de Tocqueville cited this activism as one of the hallmarks of the early American republic.

Rather, advocates of “national service” mean service to the state. To be sure, they believe the American people would benefit. But informal, decentralized, private service doesn’t count.

The latest proponent is columnist Michael Gerson, one-time speechwriter for “compassionate conservative” George W. Bush. Wrote Gerson:

How then does a democracy cultivate civic responsibility and shared identity? Taxation allows us to fund common purposes, but it does not provide common experiences. A rite of passage in which young people — rich and poor, liberal and conservative, of every racial background — work side by side to address public problems would create, at least, a vivid, lifelong memory of shared national purpose.

To Gerson’s credit, he does not advocate a mandatory program, where people would go to jail if they didn’t desire to share the national purpose exalted by their betters. But many people, from Margaret Mead to Senator Ted Kennedy, did want a civilian draft. Indeed, a number of noted liberals who campaigned against military conscription were only too happy to force the young into civilian “service.” 

What was notable about all of these schemes is that service always was secondary to national service. You could be a young Mother Theresa, but no matter. If your “service” wasn’t organized and approved by the federal government, it would lack value. Most obviously, there would be no “vivid, lifelong memory of shared national purpose.”

Whenever I hear such an objective, I think of the 34-year-old Potomac Institute report on national service. In presenting the case for a national program, the group explained:

International comparisons also fire some American imaginations.  Millions of young people serve social needs in China as a routine part of growing up, many [are] commanded to leave the crowded cities and to assist in the countryside.  Castro fought illiteracy and mosquitoes in Cuba with units of youth.  Interesting combinations of education, work, and service to society are a part of the experience of youth in Israel, Jamaica, Nigeria, Tanzania, and other nations.  The civic spirit being imbued in youth elsewhere in the world leaves some Americans wondering and worrying about Saturday-night-fever, unemployment, the new narcissism, and other afflictions of American youth.

Yes, indeed, governments in countries like China, Cuba, and Tanzania found ways to provide young people with a “vivid, lifelong memory of shared national purpose.” Of course, today most former Chinese Red Guards wish they could forget that experience!

No doubt, Michael Gerson is not thinking about an American version of the Red Guards.  However, why should the U.S. government endeavor to come up with a “softer, gentler” version of a “vivid, lifelong memory of shared national purpose”?

It’s easy to look back fondly on military service 30 or 40 years on, but those who serve rarely find it particularly ennobling at the time.  Thankfully most military personnel don’t have to go through the horrible crucible of combat, for which, even more thankfully, there is no civilian equivalent, despite William James’ fevered imagination. 

Having the federal government attempt to organize jobs for the four or so million Americans who turn 18 every year should horrify anyone with a clear-eyed view of Washington. There’s certainly no reason to assume such a shared experience would be particularly positive, let alone uplifting.

There is much to lament about American values and culture. But there’s no reason to entrust the formation of America’s character to government. Especially since a surprising number of advocates of national service had, like former vice president Richard Cheney, “other priorities” when they had an opportunity to serve. They apparently gained their appreciation for the importance of compassion, altruism, and sacrifice only when they got older—and ineligible for government work. Today’s young should not be subjected to their tender mercies.

Service is good. But it should be service to the American people organized from below, not above. Rather than enacting programs or making speeches, America’s governing elite—politicians, pundits, lobbyists, and others—should concentrate on leading by example.