All Commentary
Sunday, September 1, 1996

In Service of a Boondoggle

Private Service Needs Neither Oversight nor Subsidy from Uncle Sam

Doug Bandow is a senior fellow at the Cato Institute and a nationally syndicated columnist. He is the author and editor of several books, including The Politics of Envy: Statism as Theology (Transaction).

Service has a long and venerable history in America. And so it continues today. Three-quarters of American households give to charity. An incredible 90 million adults volunteer, the value of their time approaches $200 billion.

However, some people have long desired to involve government. Eight decades ago William James wrote of the need for a “moral equivalent of war,” in which all young men would be conscripted to work for the community. He argued that “the martial virtues, although originally gained by the race through war, are absolute and permanent human goods,” and that national service would provide a method for instilling those same values in peacetime. Anachronistic though his vision may seem today, his rhetoric has become the touchstone for national service advocates. In succeeding decades a host of philosophers, policy analysts, and politicians proffered their own proposals for either voluntary or mandatory national service.

Some of these initiatives have been turned into law, most recently the National and Community Service Trust Act, which established the Corporation for National and Community Service. So far it has survived the supposed wave of budget-cutting in Washington.

Service is obviously a good thing, which is why so many people give time and money. The issue, however, is service to whom and organized by whom?

Americans have worked in their communities since the nation’s founding and opportunities for similar kinds of service today abound. Much more could be done, of course. But what makes service in America so vital is that it is decentralized, privately organized, centered around perceived needs, and an outgrowth of people’s sense of duty and compassion. Mandating service risks teaching that the duty of giving, and the job of organizing giving (deciding who is worthy to receive public grants and, indirectly, private groups’ services) belongs to government rather than to average people throughout society. This is, in fact, the explicit goal of advocates of mandatory service programs, who would create a duty to the State rather than the supposed beneficiaries.

Some participants in service organizations share this fear. David King of the Ohio-West Virginia YMCA has warned: “The national service movement and the National Corporation are not about encouraging volunteering or community service. The national service movement is about institutionalizing federal funding for national and community service. It is about changing the language and understanding of service to eliminate the words `volunteer’ and `community service’ and in their place implant the idea that service is something paid for by the government.”

A second problem is that government service programs treat “public” service as inherently better than private service. This bias is reflected in the fact that 2,800 of the first 20,000 AmeriCorps participants were assigned to federal agencies. For instance, the Department of the Interior used AmeriCorps workers to “update geological and hydrological information for the U.S. Geological Survey” and restore wetlands and wildlife habitat. However respectable such work, it is like any other government employment and is not likely to promote volunteerism around the country.

Equally important is the concern over whether taxpayers are likely to get their money’s worth from the service provided. No doubt some good work has been done by AmeriCorps volunteers; it is hard for even the government to spend hundreds of millions of dollars without doing some good. But there is no guarantee that taxpayer-funded “service” will be worth its cost.

Even attractive-sounding jobs won’t necessarily produce much social benefit. The Corporation and its supporters speak grandly of meeting current “unmet social needs.” But as long as human wants are unlimited, the real number of unfilled social “needs,” as well as unmet business “needs,” is infinite. Labor, however, is not a free resource. Thus, it simply isn’t worthwhile to satisfy most of these “unmet” needs. Trade-offs must be made, yet national service treats some jobs, especially public ones, as sacrosanct while ignoring other, disfavored tasks.

Of course, much worthwhile service work remains to be done across the country. But government often stands in the way of private individuals and groups who want to help. Minimum-wage laws effectively forbid the hiring of dedicated but unskilled people. Restrictions on paratransit operations limit private transportation for the disabled. Government regulations also harm other forms of volunteerism. Health department codes prevent restaurants in Los Angeles and elsewhere from donating food to the hungry, for instance. In short, many important needs are left unmet precisely because of perverse government policy.

To the extent that serious social problems remain, narrowly targeted responses will likely be the most effective. That is, it would be better to find a way to attract a few people to help care for the terminally ill than to lump that task in with teaching, changing light bulbs, administrative work, private fundraising, political organizing, and the multitude of other jobs now performed by tens of thousands of AmeriCorps employees. So far the program has had decidedly mixed results. Among the dubious successes and apparent flops: in California, English classes were canceled for lack of interest and a health-care fair was badly bungled; volunteers in one Florida program complained that they were used for publicity purposes; AmeriCorps members involved with the Georgia Peach Corps spent much of their time training, traveling, and playing computer games; participants in one Baltimore program provided condom education; Northeastern University won money for an initiative to promote athletics; the Green Corps devoted 55 participants to “training the next generation of environmental leaders”; and more.

Corporation personnel also may be more interested in working off a school debt than “serving.” AmeriCorps members typically receive benefits of roughly $13,000—actually a bit higher in effect, since the educational voucher and other fringe benefits are not taxed. As a result, “service” is a better financial deal than many entry-level jobs. Some participants admit that they see national service as a financially remunerative job option, not a unique opportunity to help the community. Indeed, much of President Clinton’s pitch during the 1992 campaign was framed in terms of naked self-interest: earning credit towards college tuition.

The Corporation has also politicized the notion of service. It funded the ACORN housing program, inextricably linked with ACORN, a partisan, left-wing organization. In Denver, the Cole Coalition forced AmeriCorps members to draft and distribute political fliers. Federally funded “volunteers” were bused to an Earth Day rally in Havre de Grace, Maryland, last year. The Arizona Border Volunteer Corps used an AmeriCorps-funded newsletter to encourage its members to lobby for the program.

What we need instead of government-funded “service” is a renewed commitment to individual service. People, in community with one another, need to help meet the many serious social problems that beset us. There is a role for government: officials should commit themselves to a strategy of “first, do not harm.” We need to 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. But the private activism that follows needs neither oversight nor subsidy from Uncle Sam. America’s strength is its combination of humanitarian impulses, private association, and diversity. We need service, not “national” service.

  • Doug Bandow is a senior fellow at the Cato Institute and the author of a number of books on economics and politics. He writes regularly on military non-interventionism.