Big Brother and National Nanny

March 13, 2002 • Commentary
This article originally appeared in the Washington Times on March 13, 2002

Service is good. That is why Americans have organized to help their neighbors since before there was a United States. But we don’t need more government service, like that being promoted by President George W. Bush as he now stumps the country, high‐​lighting a volunteer at each stop.

Unfortunately, President Bush seems to have confused politics with compassion. As such, he looks like a big government conservative, a breed that increasingly dominates the Republican Party.

There is much to be said for political as well as civic leaders encouraging an ethic of service. Indeed, the president’s call for increased voluntarism is a valuable antidote to the curious aftermath of September 11 — when spending money as if nothing had happened was treated as patriotism.

More representative of Americans’ good hearts was their generous outpouring of more than a billion dollars in aid. It demonstrated the dramatic possibilities of voluntary social action, a process both more compassionate and flexible than any political program financed through taxpayer exactions.

Indeed, even before September 11 Americans generously volunteered; an Independent Sector survey found that nearly half of adults gave of themselves, for an average of 81 hours a year.

People are much more likely to give some time when asked and wealthier individuals are most likely to volunteer. Americans also gave an average of $1,620 per household, and virtually everyone contributed something when asked to do so. It is a level of generosity unmatched elsewhere in the world.

This is a proud U.S. tradition. The perceptive French observer, Alexis de Tocqueville, writing in the early 1800s, remarked on Americans’ propensity to volunteer. Never content to wait for government to act, they worked with families, friends and neighbors to help those around them.

There’s still much more to be done, of course. That is why President Bush’s call to service, buttressed by First Lady Laura Bush’s evident commitment to the cause of literacy, is welcome.

Indeed, no one could reasonably disagree with his call on Americans to “love somebody, mentor a child. Stand up to evil with acts of goodness and kindness.” It is a charge which we should all heed.

Of course, there’s no particular reason to assume that Mr. Bush’s proposed 4,000 hours is the right level of service over a lifetime.

As the Apostle Paul explained in writing to the Corinthian church, “see that you excel in this grace of giving.” (2 Cor. 8:7) People should give generously, whatever their circumstances; today many devote far more time than suggested by the president to helping others.

Yet Mr. Bush wants to do more than simply encourage Americans to be compassionate people and good citizens. He wants the federal government to finance and organize their activities.

“Join the USA Freedom Corps,” he said, before challenging Americans to love, mentor, and stand up.

Among his many new initiatives are an expansion of Bill Clinton’s AmeriCorps and Senior Corps, and John F. Kennedy’s Peace Corps, along with the creation of an entirely new Citizen Corps. They would all operate under the USA Freedom Corps, employ 200,000 new volunteers, and cost more than a half‐​billion dollars extra next year.

And the president is a piker compared to some. Sens. John McCain, Arizona Republican, and Evan Bayh, Indiana Democrat, would quintuple the size of AmeriCorps alone. A few commentators even propose conscripting 4 million 18‐​year‐​olds into some form of government “service.”

It seems churlish to criticize a multitude of “corps” employing people to “serve.” That is one reason legislators constantly create new bureaucracies without dismantling old ones. Yet critical thought is necessary. The Citizen Corps, for instance, is supposed to spur Americans to fight terrorism — everyone from mail carriers to truckers is to report suspicious activity, people are to volunteer with the local police and man neighborhood watch programs, retired doctors are to act as a medical reserve for governments, and others are to be trained to offer aid in a crisis.

These may all be laudable tasks, but what do any of them have to do with the federal government? Local and state governments are to serve as the focus for law enforcement and in the first instance respond to emergencies. Every City, U.S.A., not Washington, D.C., should be the repository of lists of retired health care professionals.

The president is living an illusion if he believes that pushing the number of Peace Corps workers from 7,000 to 15,000 will enable them to demonstrate America’s compassion by going “into the Islamic world to spread the message of economic development.” That objective is far better achieved through private organizations with no connection to the U.S. government.

Then there is AmeriCorps, once opposed by the GOP but now embraced by the leader of a party that loudly proclaims the virtues of limited government. The organization hires volunteers for private groups, offering a college tuition award, living allowance, and fringe benefits.

The president says simply “I think the country needs to provide opportunities for people to serve.” But the U.S. is already doing so. Otherwise 84 million Americans wouldn’t be volunteering — without the government’s “help.”

AmeriCorps managers Stephen Goldsmith and Leslie Lenkowsky make a different argument, lauding the program for compiling “an impressive list of achievements.” But there is plenty of bad — political abuse, waste and low‐​priority work, much of it documented by investigative journalist Jim Bovard.

Mr. Goldsmith and Mr. Lenkowsky also contend that groups “require assistance, either to compete successfully for grants and contracts or just to strengthen and expand what they already do.”

That presumably is why Habitat for Humanity, for instance, accepted AmeriCorps employees after refusing government aid in the past. Mr. Goldsmith and Mr. Lenkowsky claim that government‐​funded “volunteers” helped manage more part‐​time people who produced more houses.

Yet the issue is not whether good private groups could put more money to good use. Of course they could. The issue is, who should give them the money?

There’s no doubt that it is easier to hire Uncle Sam to pick taxpayers’ pockets than to convince Americans to voluntarily give. Apparently, Habitat for Humanity, despite its good works, was unable to persuade its supporters to fund the new full‐​time volunteers; Uncle Sam solved the problem by taking the money anyway. Yet government funding doesn’t always guarantee increased volunteer activity: In some cases, AmeriCorps employees simply replaced local salaried staffers.

Moreover, easy though taxpayer funding may be, right it is not. If voluntarism means anything, it is that actions are voluntary. And real compassion involves personal sacrifice, not making other people sacrifice.

There’s another, more fundamental objection. AmeriCorps continues the process of government supplanting individual responsibility for those in need. People have long organized themselves, chosen groups to support, and gotten personally involved, thereby strengthening the sinews of society. But Uncle Sam has spent nearly a century taking control of areas of life once left to a vibrant civil society.

The private sector has been pushed into the background by the welfare state. It has become all too easy for people to say “I gave at the office,” and ignore the needs around them.

Still, a vibrant, if small, private charitable sector has survived. Now government wants to take over funding it as well, by giving grants and providing volunteers.

Thus, government will decide what kind of jobs should be done and which volunteers should be hired. It will control the independent sector, turning it into another arm of the welfare state. And making active citizen involvement unnecessary.

The president is pushing increased voluntarism for the right reasons, but he has chosen the wrong means. Americans should give more. That does not mean Uncle Sam should spend more

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