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.”