You’ll Get Served

Tonight Barack Obama and John McCain will appear together in New York to “discuss in depth their views on service and civic engagement in the post-9/11 era” in a primetime forum hosted by ServiceNation, “a dynamic new coalition of 110 organizations that has a collective reach of some 100 million Americans and is dedicated to strengthening our democracy and solving problems through civic engagement and service.” 

According to their website, bethechangeinc.org, ServiceNation does not support mandatory national service. Their model is a dramatically expanded version of the subsidized volunteerism so popular on both sides of the political aisle. (For Cato work on federal national service programs and proposals, go here.)

Starting Inauguration Day 2009 — and culminating on next year’s 9/11 anniversary — they’ll be pushing their “advocacy campaign for national service legislation.” Among the proposals they favor: “Expanding service on college campuses. Placing 1 million Americans per year in full- and part-time stipended national service by 2020.” As the website states: “This policy agenda proposes meaningful opportunities for service at every key life stage, and for every socioeconomic group, from kindergarten through the post-retirement years.”

One wonders what sort of useful “service” five-year-olds can perform in between playtime and naptime. But the point, apparently, is that “these proposals will help instill a culture of service at an early age and provide opportunities for Americans to continue serving throughout their lifetimes.”

As tonight’s event demonstrates, both parties link the call for national service to the tragedy of September 11th. At last month’s Saddleback Civil Forum on the Presidency, Pastor Rick Warren asked both candidates “what do you think is the greatest moral failure of America?”  McCain’s answer was especially interesting.  Was it slavery?  Indian removal?  Japanese internment?  Nope: 

I think America’s greatest moral failure has been… throughout our existence, perhaps we have not devoted ourselves to causes greater than our self-interest, although we’ve been at the best at it of everybody in the world.

McCain continued with a backhanded dig at President Bush’s post-9/11 advice to Americans to “Do your business around the country. Fly and enjoy America’s great destination spots. Get down to Disney World in Florida.” McCain told Warren:

I think after 9/11, my friends, instead of telling people to go shopping or take a trip, we should have told Americans to join the Peace Corps, AmeriCorps, the military, expand our volunteers, expand what you’re doing — (APPLAUSE) — expand what you’re doing, expand the current missions that you are doing, that you are carrying out here in America and throughout the world, in Rwanda. And I hope we have a chance to talk about that later on.

In an October 2001 Washington Monthly article, McCain displayed what Matt Welch has called his “essentially militaristic conception of citizenship.” He praised City Year, an AmeriCorps initiative operating in 13 cities: “City Year members wear uniforms, work in teams, learn public speaking skills, and gather together for daily calisthenics, often in highly public places such as in front of city hall.” He also endorsed the National Civilian Community Corps, “a service program consciously structured along military lines,” in which enrollees “not only wear uniforms and work in teams… but actually live together in barracks on former military bases.” McCain calls for expanding these two initiatives and “spread[ing] their group-cohesion techniques to other AmeriCorps programs.” But perhaps we can take heart in McCain’s grudging admission that “it is not currently politically practicable to revive the draft.”

In any event, it’s good that ServiceNation is encouraging people to help their neighbors out. But why does that effort have to culminate in federal legislation? All too many people, Left and Right, seem to buy into David Brooks’s notion that “ultimately, national purpose can only find its voice in Washington.” According to that mindset, if a barn-raising takes place without a federal subsidy, it’s like it hasn’t really happened at all.

Few of us will want to argue with noble sentiments like Obama’s (or was it God’s?) injunction to act as our “brother’s keeper” or McCain’s call to serve “a cause greater than our self interest.” But it’s hard to see how any of this is their — or the government’s — business.

Americans help each other out in myriad ways everyday without expecting a government paycheck or the seal of approval from a newly minted bureaucracy. But when Americans perform charitable works outside the state, it’s awfully hard for politicians to take credit for their service.