Limited programs like the Depression‐era Works Progress Administration and Civilian Conservation Corps came and went. A few initiatives, such as the Peace Corps, became permanent. Bill Clinton failed to socialize America’s health care system but managed to push AmeriCorps and the Corporation for National and Community Service through Congress, which added government employment in the name of “service” and paid people to “serve.”
The Democratic Leadership Council, to which then‐Arkansas Gov. Bill Clinton belonged, had declared that Americans lived in a “prevailing climate of moral indolence” where “such venerable civic virtues as duty and self‐sacrifice and compassion toward one’s less fortunate neighbors are seldom invoked.” However, President Clinton was less willing to criticize voters. Instead, he sold his idea by tying “service” (everything from policing the streets to monitoring the environment to painting “darkened buildings”) to college benefits, an ostentatiously selfish motive.
Helping others obviously is a good thing. However, “national” service assumes that citizens are responsible not to each other, but to the state. Being born in the United States means a person “owes” a year or two of his or her life to Washington. Mandatory, universal schemes unabashedly put private lives at the disposal of the government. Even voluntary public programs imply a unity of society and state, with work for the latter equated to service to the former.
Yet Americans have volunteered in their communities since before the nation’s founding, as Alexis de Tocqueville described in his classic Democracy in America. And so it continues today. Most Americans give something to charity. Tens of millions of people volunteer every year. Churches and even many schools and businesses have their own programs.
It’s fine to argue that more should be done. But rarely do the political activists and policy pundits promoting such schemes lead by example while decrying the inadequacies of today’s young. In fact, the percentage of adults who volunteer dropped by 3.9 percent between 2005 and 2015—that’s all adults, not just young adults. Why conscript only the least politically active?
National service schemes also treat “public” work as having unique virtue. For instance, to shelve books in a bookstore is grubby business, but to do so in a library is virtue exemplified, worthy of federal subsidy. Even stranger is the notion that there is something substantially different in hiring someone to work for the EPA and paying someone to work on environmental issues for AmericaCorps. Artists, counselors, entrepreneurs, inventors, scientists, surgeons, and others provide “public” benefits even when working privately.
Advocates of government‐paid “service” inevitably talk about addressing “unmet social needs.” James H. Stone, once chairman of the Commodity Futures Trading Commission, recently advocated a universal program—for other people, naturally—noting that “there is always more to be done.” In fact, the “need” is potentially infinite. One figure tossed around years ago was 5.3 million “necessary” tasks to be performed. Analysts calculated the precise numbers of librarians, police, and teachers “required.” But talking about demand is meaningless without considering cost. If the price is zero the number of “unmet” needs is infinite.
Civilian “service” programs also may divert quality recruits from the military. The All‐Volunteer Force is picky, setting far tougher standards than did the conscript armed forces. At a time when Washington’s foolishly promiscuous war‐making has discouraged even patriotic young men and women from joining, national service would diminish the unique nature of military service by treating, say, cataloguing library books as the moral equivalent of combating foreign foes. Moreover, providing educational benefits for civilian work would attract the same college‐capable youth sought by the armed forces.
Nevertheless, a few years back another flurry of proposals for national service made the rounds. For instance, former Gen. Stanley McChrystal co‐chaired an Aspen Institute program to encourage service. The resulting Franklin Project proposed a million government‐funded volunteers. But McChrystal was not content to appeal to the young. He and others wanted to require government service, both military and civilian.
Presidential candidate Hillary Clinton recently offered her own plan, calling service something that would be “a vital aspect of my presidency.” Alas, with the U.S. constantly at war, America would hardly seem to need a moral equivalent. Nevertheless, she promised to “make national service a national,” meaning federal government, “priority.” She would expand the number of AmeriCorps employees from 75,000 to 250,000, increase college scholarships for “volunteering,” make these benefits tax‐free, and work “to even further grow the program to increase the number of citizens engaged in national service” in furtherance of her “vision that every person who wants to serve full‐time can do so”—in government, anyway.
She also suggested a National Service Reserve, which would “provide a vehicle for the sense of civic ownership and responsibility” that Clinton claimed “to feel” throughout her life. (That’s an interesting description of her scandal‐wracked and profit‐minded career.)Those who sign up would receive something like military “basic training” and could be called upon to address chronic and emergency social problems. The finances are a little murky: she apparently didn’t expect participants to be genuine volunteers, instead suggesting provision of college benefits, living expenses, and time off from work, perhaps underwritten by employers.
Finally, Clinton proposed to “strengthen international service” by expanding the Peace Corps “to provide the human capital resources to solve the world’s most pressing challenges.” Whatever good Peace Corps personnel do, solving “the world’s most pressing challenges” really isn’t one, else such problems as hunger and poverty should have been eliminated by now. In contrast, businessman Mark Lenzi, a former Peace Corps worker, made a different argument, contending that sending Peace Corps members to obscure nations such as Tajikistan—which he labeled as “strategically vital” (perhaps to China or Russia, but surely not America)—will “have strategic, long‐term benefit for the United States.” So much for selflessly solving those “pressing challenges.”
One of the most attractive yet pernicious ideas is that supposed national service would allow the state to mold souls. Columnist Michael Gerson asked: “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.”
While people voluntarily together to perform tasks they believe to be important often do come away with intense memories of shared commitment, that doesn’t necessarily have anything to do “civic responsibility” and “national purpose.” Would, say, rehabilitating a nature reserve as part of a government program really turn you into a docile citizen prepared to put the collective before the individual?
Moreover, the more people (every 18‐year‐old), wider the activity (picking up litter), and more coercive (go to jail if you don’t report for duty), the less likely gratitude will transcend resentment and democracy will benefit. Any number of military conscripts counted the days until their forced service was over. They did not return to civilian life stripped of selfish, individualistic desires, ready to unite with other Americans as one. Those Chinese young people so admired by the Potomac Institute representatives generally do not today look back on their “service” fondly.
Yet author Steve Metz recently wrote: “There is one initiative, though, that could simultaneously help steel national will, reinforce a sense of shared national purpose, and shrink the pool of young Americans willing to become terrorists: universal national service with military and nonmilitary options to those serving.”
He did not explain exactly how ordering everyone to turn a year or two of their lives over to a federal agency would “steel national will,” whatever that means. China and Russia would not likely cower before the prospect of American 18‐year‐olds picking up litter and washing hospital floors. The presumption that conscripting angry young immigrants would turn them into happily assimilated liberal cosmopolitans is an even greater stretch.
Most young people probably wouldn’t be impressed by their elders waxing eloquent while taking away other people’s freedom in the name of all that is good and wonderful. What could be more emblematic of the discredited governing class than simultaneously claiming moral credit and political benefit from forcing others to “do good”? Threatening to toss people into jail because they refuse to spend a year filing police paperwork or collecting cigarette butts in parks would not likely build a sense of national unity. Least impressed would be those inclined to kill out of a misperceived sense of religious duty and/or political grievance.
No doubt, America would benefit from a renewed commitment by people to serve. However, the very value of genuine human service makes the case against turning it into a federal program, implemented and enforced by Washington. The steady expansion of the welfare state has inexorably squeezed out private assistance. These days even nominally “non‐governmental organizations” receive part or most of their funding from the state. Under “national service” government would pay people to do what others once did as private volunteers. And would this would further eliminate the sense of personal obligation to help those in need. Don’t worry, Uncle Sam will helpfully pick taxpayers’ pockets and fill all those “unmet social needs.”
Those so determined to spend other people’s money and seize other people’s lives probably are frustrated living in a nominally free society. But they should convince rather than coerce a free people to do more in community with one another to help meet the many serious social problems that beset us. Public exhortations may encourage some people to act, but “leaders” who fail to live out their supposed principles—those with “other priorities,” like Vice President Richard Cheney who assiduously avoided military service during the Vietnam War—aren’t the best salesmen for grand new federal initiatives.
There is a role for government: first do no harm. Washington should terminate or reform public programs that discourage personal responsibility and disrupt families and communities. Legal barriers that interfere with private philanthropy and volunteerism should be lowered. And while government has taken on responsibility for creating a “safety net,” it should not subsume the volunteer sector through “national service.” There is no correct definition of service, proper form of involvement, and predetermined set of needs to be met and tasks to be performed.
Most important, “service” should not be hijacked by political elites for their own purposes, such as turning Americans into their vision of the “new man.” Helping others also should not be used for political gain. The answer to popular cynicism and anger created by the political class—special interest lawmaking characterized by pervasive looting of the Treasury, promiscuous war‐making with U.S. military personnel treated as gambit pawns in a global chess game, partisan politics of destruction wrecking the “shared national purpose” everyone claims to support—is not a grand new crusade organized by these very same political elites.
In meeting social needs America’s great strength is its combination of humanitarian impulses, diversity of private association, and determination to act. America needs more service, not “national service,” whether in voluntary or mandatory form. Service is one aspect of American life which should remain beyond the state’s reach.