The legislative process always ended up shrinking grandiose proposals into much more limited programs, such as the Peace Corps, VISTA, the Corporation for National and Community Service, AmeriCorps, and various local and state initiatives. But the expansive vision never died.
Thus, the Aspen Institute crowd talked of instilling values of citizenship and service, finding common ground, creating a shared experience, cultivating leadership, and sharing a common cause. Gerson imagined that national service would demonstrate “gratitude for our patrimony and affection for our traditions and institutions.”
Despite the always benevolent objectives and ennobling rhetoric, the basic question remains: service to and organized by whom? Americans have worked in their communities for others since before the nation’s founding and opportunities for similar kinds of service abound today. Businesses, churches, charities, and schools all participate.
Much more could be done, of course, especially given America’s serious problems. But what makes service in the U.S. so vital is that it is decentralized, privately organized, directed at meeting human, not political, needs, and an outgrowth of people’s sense of compassion and obligation. Public exhortations may encourage some people to act, but “leaders” who spend more time urging others to help than helping—those who had “other priorities,” like Vice President Richard Cheney, when they were young and called upon to serve—aren’t the best salesmen for the obligation to volunteer.
The very fact that community service is so valuable argues against turning it into a federal project. Government funding and control would squeeze voluntarism into a larger social plan implemented and enforced by Washington. The welfare state is the history of public enterprise pushing out private assistance. The impact was largely unintentional, but natural—indeed, inevitable. Increased taxes left individuals with less money to give; government’s assumption of responsibility for providing welfare reduced the perceived duty of individuals to respond to their neighbors’ needs; and the availability of public programs gave recipients an alternative to private assistance, one which made fewer demands for the reform of destructive behaviors and lifestyles. Over time, the welfare state pushed aside charitable enterprises as well as a host of benevolent societies that once served the needs of tradesmen, minorities, and other.
Even some churches abandoned the mission of being salt and light. In response to President Clinton’s call on every church to employ one person then on welfare Rev. Albert Pennybacker of the National Council of Churches responded that “Our job is not to compensate for the failure of government to do its job.” Government’s job? Religious orders once provided a host of social services, including health care, education, and charity. Now even some churches apparently see aid to the needy as the state’s responsibility.
Government promoted/mandated service could further supplant private responsibility. A massive federal “service” program would suggest that giving and organizing giving (deciding who should receive money and volunteers) belong to government rather than society. It would become even easier for the average person to say in effect: “I gave at the office.”
A national program, whether voluntary or mandatory, also would treat “public” service as inherently better than private service. Yet being paid/forced by the government to shelve books in a library is no more laudable than being paid to stock shelves at Barnes & Noble. A host of private sector jobs provide enormous public benefits—consider health care professionals, medical and scientific researchers, business entrepreneurs and inventors, and artists. Many of them earn less than they could in alternative work; they have chosen to “serve” in their own way. Yet government programs that equate public employment or publicly‐endorsed employment with service effectively denigrate private service.
More subtle but no less damaging may be the impact on support for volunteer groups. It certainly is simpler if the IRS empties pockets nationwide, hands the money to a government entity, which, in turn, gives grants to or hires workers for charity. But the right way is for individuals to send their money directly to deserving groups.
Indeed, genuine charity doesn’t mean giving away someone else’s money. As Marvin Olasky, author of The Tragedy of American Compassion, has pointed out, compassion once meant to “suffer with.” The giver also learned from the recipient and benefited from the relationship.
Over time compassion came to mean writing a check. It increasingly has become equated with making someone else write a check. Yet turning the job of funding private groups, however worthy, over to the state is likely to encourage people to further abdicate their civic responsibilities. To strengthen civil society and recreate a sense of duty to help the needy requires encouraging people to contribute as well as volunteer.
In fact, thoughtfully choosing which charities to support and monitoring their activities are important forms of volunteerism. Sending money to Washington for distribution to private groups benefits the recipients, no one else. In contrast, people informing themselves about service, supporting worthwhile organizations, giving voluntarily, and getting involved in other ways strengthen the sinews of community. Getting more people to more thoughtfully give more money should be a top social priority. But government‐funded service, though implemented in the name of volunteerism, makes it less necessary for people to volunteer time and money.
Moreover, public welfare programs at least are nominally accountable to taxpayers. Not so private entities, some of which may have philosophical or theological viewpoints that conflict with those of many taxpayers. However, excluding such groups would put them at a notable disadvantage—a concern with welfare spending that led to President George W. Bush’s faith‐based initiative, which delivered federal grants to religious groups. Conflicts are inevitable.
Is it realistic to expect people to volunteer more time and money? They are less likely to do so the less need they see to do so, and they will see less need to do so if the government not only provides public welfare but creates its own “service” programs and funds and mans nominally private charitable groups. If the government essentially supplants the independent sector by providing one million volunteers, let alone four million “service” conscripts as part of a mandatory, universal program, why should anyone give?
National service suffers from two other significant failings. Having the federal government attempt to organize or oversee (with money comes strings) work for a million 18-year-olds—or worse, the roughly four million who turn 18 every year as part of a universal scheme—should horrify anyone with a clear‐eyed view of Washington. Never mind the difficulty of impecunious Uncle Sam finding tens of billions of dollars for the program. There’s no reason to assume such a shared experience would be particularly positive, let alone uplifting.
National service advocates long have concocted detailed estimates of “unmet social needs” which offered the illusion of precision but were meaningless. The demand for “service” is infinite if there is no consideration of opportunity costs, what could otherwise be achieved with the money and labor involved. The draft military wasted human resources because it paid little for conscript labor. The idea that Uncle Sam would employ millions of 18‐year‐olds every year doing morally uplifting and socially serious work is a fantasy.
Mandatory programs, which remain the ultimate objective of many national service advocates, have a far more serious moral failing. What conceivable justification is there for jailing people who do not want to shelve books at the local bookstore? Or clean bedpans at the local hospital? A war of national survival at least offers a plausible argument for conscription. It is quite another thing to draft the young to impose an elite vision of social engineering.
Last year McChrystal expressed doubt that “young people really would fight it if it was fair, if everybody did it.” Surely Vietnam demonstrated that young people will battle for their freedom. No doubt, most would do less to avoid spending a year picking up litter in the local park than fighting guerrillas in Southeast Asia, but it wouldn’t take many recalcitrants to create bureaucratic and legal chaos. If even one percent of young people resisted, there would be more than 40,000 lawbreakers. Even more likely would be passive resistance—failing to show up at work, doing little on the job, disobeying supervisors, and otherwise treating mandated service with the respect that it deserved. What then? Fines? Jail time? Imagine the lessons taught: those well past the age of service using force to make the young “good.”
America would benefit from a renewed commitment to service. People, in community with one another, should help meet America’s many serious social problems. There is a role for government: officials should eliminate public programs that discourage personal independence and self‐responsibility, disrupt and destroy communities and families, and hinder the attempts of people and groups to respond to problems around them. Moreover, those demanding that others serve should lead by example.
But private activism needs neither oversight nor subsidy from Uncle Sam. Some of the volunteerism can be part‐time and some full‐time; some can take place within the family, some within churches, and some within civic and community groups. Some may occur through profit‐making ventures. There is no predetermined definition of service, pattern of appropriate involvement, set of “needs” to be met or tasks to be fulfilled. There certainly is no need to create a “national” system to inculcate elite values.
America long has benefited from humanitarian impulses, private association, and social diversity. We need more service, not government service.