The Free Press, Front & Brown Streets, Riverside, NJ 08375 • 1988 • 224 pages • $22.95 cloth
One of the first bills introduced in the Senate when Congress reconvened in 1989 was the “Citizenship and National Service Act of 1989.” This legislation, co-sponsored by Senators Sam Numa and Charles Robb, among others, would create a Federal Citizens Corps to enlist 800,000 or more young people to spend a year or two doing good. President George Bush’s largely private Youth Engaged in Service initiative pales in comparison.
The notion of national service has been around for a long time, at least since 1887 when Edward Bellamy proposed conscripting an “industrial army” for public projects. William James picked up the theme in 1910, urging that the nation’s “gilded youth” be drafted in what he termed the “moral equivalent of war.” Among the concept’s most articulate proponents in recent years has been sociologist Charles Moskos, intellectual adviser to Senator Numa and other members of the Democratic Leadership Council (DLC), which released its own book on the subject, and author of A Call to Civic Service.
Moskos, a long-time critic of the All-Volunteer Force’s reliance on market incentives to fill its ranks, makes as good a case as is possible for national service. In his view America has been paying too much attention to individual freedom and entitlements and too little to corresponding social responsibilities; he argues that national service would promote a “spirit of civic mindedness” that is presently lacking.
Moskos, whose proposal closely resembles the Nunn/DLC proposal, wants to involve upwards of one million young people in fulfilling “tasks that neither the marketplace nor government can provide,” including day care, tutoring, health care, and conservation work. He would establish a Corporation for National Youth Service, pay participants $100 a week, cover room and board, and provide extensive educational assistance to people who finish the program. Existing student loans and other educational benefits would be terminated. This, indeed, is the key to his proposal: Federal tuition aid, like the post-World War II G.I. Bill, would be the “nation’s way of expressing its graff-tude for those” who enlisted for civilian as well as military service.
Moskos also promotes his plan as a means of improving the volunteer military, which, he believes, is incapable of delivering “a socially representative force.” He would set up a two-track system involving “professional soldiers”—essentially today’s volunteers—and “citizen soldiers,” who would serve for shorter terms and be paid significantly lower wages but would receive expanded G.I. Bill benefits. This approach, he argues, would allow the armed services to “reach the largely untapped pool of talented and upwardly mobile youth who would find a temporary diversion from the world of work or school tolerable, and perhaps even welcome.”
There are several problems with A Call to Civic Service, as well as the other dozen proposals for national service now circulating on Capitol Hill. The first is the issue of entitlements. Americans have developed an indefensible entitlement eth-ic-what justification is there for forcing lower-income taxpayers to pay for middle- class college graduates to attend law or business school? The solution, however, is not to create a new entitlement, payable if you do a job that Uncle Sam happens to approve of, but simply to end the subsidies.
Of course, the proposal to end student financial aid never comes up in Washington, but what justification is there for this bit of middle-class welfare? On average, a college degree increases a graduate’s lifetime earnings by $640,000. Why shouldn’t he devote part Of that return to cover his school expenses?
Then there’s the curious notion in this book—and, indeed, in virtually every advocacy piece on behalf of national service—that there are an enormous number of unmet needs to be filled through a national service program. Moskos, for instance, cites estimates of 3.5 million tasks presently left undone. But as long as human wants are unlimited, the real number of unfulfilled jobs is infinite. Since labor is not a free resource, most such “needs” are not worth meeting. We’re all better off if we let the pre-med student graduate and go on to get his M.D. instead of making him (or paying him to) spend a year picking up cigarette butts in a local park.
And simply erroneous is Moskos’ oft-repeated contention that the All-Volunteer Force is a poor man’s military, in 1988, 95 percent of new recruits had high school degrees, compared to just 75 percent of civilian youth; enlistees also did far better on standardized tests than their non-service counterparts. Even volunteers in the army, which traditionally has had the most recruiting difficulties, are well above average and have been for years.
Observes Sue Berryman in Who Serves? The Persistent Myth of the Underclass Army, a short but fact-filled book on the question of social representativeness in the armed services: “even in 1979 [one of the military's worst recruiting years] the younger members of the enlisted force by no means came from the most marginal families or from youth with the most marginal attainments, aspirations, or work attitudes.”
Finally, why do we need a national service program to promote volunteerism? America would, in fact, benefit from a new “spirit of civic minded-ness,” in Moskos’ words. But there is no lack of opportunities for people to serve today: private organizations like the Christ House medical facility for the homeless in Washington, the Our Dally Bread soup kitchen in Baltimore, the Community Service Network in San Diego, and any number oflibraries, nursing homes, hospitals, parks, and other institutions across America welcome volunteers. The Commission of the States has organized the Campus Compact, which promotes community service at 150 different educational institutions; the Campus Outreach Opportunity League was created by students in 1984 and coordinates activities in 450 colleges and 200 other organizations. Ninety-two million Americans now give time to some volunteer group, and the number has been growing steadily throughout the past decade.
Moskos and other supporters of national service have looked out across America and found it wanting: people, especially young people, are greedy, frivolous, selfish, lazy, irresponsible, and so on. Therefore, someone—namely the public-spirited proponents of national service—must make everyone else change their ways. In the “kinder, gentler” U.S. such a system might not be quite as odious as China’s once widely admired program of youth service—recently reestablished in an attempt to stamp out “bourgeois liberal” ideas—but it would still do violence to a republican order based on individual liberty and limited government.
Moreover, service, to be meaningful, must be voluntary, stemming from genuine feelings of charity and concern for others. Compulsory compassion is an obvious oxymoron. But even Moskos’ promise of financial reward for spending a year cleaning bed pans would corrupt the concept of service. High school graduates would then be more likely to sign up to collect the generous benefits, equivalent to more than $17,500 after tax es, than out of a sense of moral obligation. “Service” would become just another job.
Moskos rightly criticizes a civic ethic grown selfish and cold. But we need to generate a renewed commitment to service from the ground up, from the family, churches, and community organizations, not impose it from the top down, especially from Capitol Hill. The notion of people voluntarily helping one another is far too important to entrust to government. We need more individual service, not a program of national service.
Doug Bandow is a Senior Fellow at the Cato Institute and the author of The Politics of Plunder: Misgovernment in Washington, forthcoming from Transaction Books. While a Special Assistant to President Reagan, he worked with the President’s Military Manpower Task Force.