National Service: Utopias Revisited

We need a renewed commitment to individual service, not national service.

Mr. Bandow is a contributing editor to The Freeman.

In his State of the Union speech, President Clinton proposed more than just higher taxes and more spending. He also promised to make his vision of national service a reality. It seems the President wants the state to guide the young into “appropriate” pursuits.

National service has long been a favorite utopian scheme. Eight decades ago William James wrote of the need for a “moral equivalent of war,” in which all young men would be required 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 provided a method for instilling those same values in peacetime. “Our gilded youths would be drafted off,” he wrote, “to get the childishness knocked out of them, and to come back into society with healthier sympathies and soberer ideas.” 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. And some of these initiatives have been turned into law: military conscription, the Civilian Conservation Corps, the Peace Corps, and ACTION, for instance.

Five years ago the Democratic Leadership Council (DLC), to which Governor Bill Clinton belonged, advocated a Citizens Corps of 800,000 or more young people to clean up parks and handle police paperwork. The system would be run by a Corporation for National Service, which would set the level of benefits for participants and offer an educational/housing voucher. Underlying the proposal was an assumption of mass moral decadence that had to be rectified by the federal government. We live in a “prevailing climate of moral indolence,” lamented the DLC, where “such venerable civic virtues as duty and self-sacrifice and compassion toward one’s less fortunate neighbors are seldom invoked.”

Candidate Clinton was too interested in being elected to criticize the voters in those terms, so he used more positive rhetoric to propose allowing perhaps 250,000 or so people to work off their student loans through approved government service. His initiative, he explained, would allow everyone who wanted to go to school to do so, while having them give something back to the community. Superficially, at least, it sounds like a win-win proposition. In practice, however, it would pour billions of dollars into make-work jobs while reinforcing the entitlement mentality that pervades our society.


What Is National Service?

National service has always generated strong approval in opinion polls, largely because it means different things to different people. The concept of “service” to the nation seems difficult to fault, and everyone imagines that the service will be provided in the manner that they prefer. Thus, a century ago Edward Bellamy used his novel Looking Backward to propose drafting an industrial army of both men and women for life; in 1910 William James urged conscription of young men into the most unpleasant of work, such as construction, fishing, and steel-making. The so-called preparedness movement pressed for mandatory military training and service before the onset of World War I. Radical Randolph Bourne later proposed forcing young men and women to provide two years of service before the age of 20. Universal military training received wide endorsement after World War II, and Congress reimposed military conscription after only a one-year interregnum. Defense Secretary Robert McNamara advocated tying civilian service to the draft in the early 1960s. Sociologist Margaret Mead advocated a universal program that “would replace for girls, even more than for boys, marriage as the route away from the parental home.”

Since then the proposals have come fast and furious. Don Eberly of the National Service Secretariat has spent years pressing for a service program, while carefully sidestepping the question of whether it should be mandatory. Charles Moskos of Northwestern University pushed a civilian adjunct to the draft before the creation of the All-Volunteer Force in 1973 and most recently has presented a detailed voluntary program. Moskos nevertheless retains his preference for compulsion, admitting that “if I could have a magic wand I would be for a compulsory system.” (Also mandatory, though in a different way, is the service requirement for high school graduation now imposed by the state of Maryland and roughly 200 local school jurisdictions.) Dozens of bills were proposed in the 1980s to create commissions, hand out grants, reestablish the Civilian Conservation Corps and Works Progress Administration, generate other new service agencies, and pay part-time volunteers. Most serious was the Democratic Leadership Council’s initiative, which Congress turned into an omnibus grant program, along with the Commission on National and Community Service. The issue had largely died until 1992, when the Los Angeles riots caused observers ranging from the late tennis great Arthur Ashe to Bush campaign aide James Pinkerton to press for different forms of national service. More important, candidate Clinton began inserting it into his stump speeches.


Clinton’s Scheme

According to President Clinton, “you could bet your bottom dollar” that his program would “make it possible for every person in this country who wants to, to go to college.” He proposed, as one of his top five priorities, creating the National Service Trust Fund. All young people, irrespective of their parents’ income, could borrow for their education; they would repay their loans either through federal withholding from future wages or by “serving their communities for one or two years doing work their country needs.” After the election budget realities forced him to scale back his initiative to a maximum of 150,000 participants annually, under the aegis of a new Corporation for National Service.

There is nothing compulsory about the Clinton proposal, but coercion could follow later. Enthusiasts of a mandatory, universal system, like Republican Senator John McCain of Arizona, see voluntary programs as a helpful first step, and would undoubtedly press for making them involuntary once national service became the law of the land, especially if ”too few” children of privilege and wealth joined.

Service is obviously a good thing, which is why so many people feel warm and fuzzy when politicians propose “national service.” The question, however, is service to whom? Government programs ultimately assume that citizens are responsible not to each other, but to the state. The proposals suggest that as a price for being born in the United States one “owes” a year or two of one’s life to Washington. Mandatory universal schemes put private lives at the disposal of the government, but most of the voluntary programs, too, imply a unity of society and state, with work for the latter being equated with service to the former.

Americans have worked in their communities since the nation’s founding, and opportunities for similar service today abound. Some 80 million people, roughly one-third of the population, now participate in some volunteer activities. Businesses, churches, and schools have taken the lead in helping to organize their members’ efforts. In a cover story Newsweek reported that “many of the old stereotypes are gone. Forget the garden club: Today working women are more likely than housewives to give time to good works, and many organizations are creating night and weekend programs for the busy schedules of dual-paycheck couples. Men, too, are volunteering almost as often as women.”

Much more could be done, of course. But it would be better for government officials to lead by example rather than to concoct multi-billion dollar schemes to encourage what is already occurring. True compassion is going to be taught from the grassroots on up, not from Washington on down. The underlying assumption of the Clinton program—that there is a debilitating dearth of service that can be remedied only through yet another raid on the taxpayers—is simply false.

A second bias held by national service advocates is that “public” service is inherently better than private service. Yet what makes shelving books in a library more laudable or valuable than stocking shelves in a bookstore? A host of private sector jobs provides enormous public benefits—consider health-care professionals, medical and scientific researchers, business entrepreneurs and inventors, and artists. Working in a government-approved “service” job neither entitles one to be morally smug nor means one is producing more of value than the average worker in the private workplace.


Entitlement Mentality

Still, national service proponents rightly point to the problem of an entitlement mentality, the idea that, for instance, students have a right to a taxpayer-paid education. Why should middle-class young people be able to force poor taxpayers to put them through school? The solution, however, is not to say that students are entitled to do so as long as they work for the government for a year or two, but to eliminate the undeserved subsidy. People simply do not have a “right” to a university education, and especially a professional degree, at taxpayer expense.

Program advocates respond with shock. Education, they argue, will be increasingly important in an increasingly technological age. True enough: The greatest divergence in incomes in the 1980s reflected the gulf between those with and without college degrees. That increased earning potential primarily benefits the student himself, however, and the likely lifetime gain of $640,000 should allow him to borrow privately. The interest rate may be higher than with today’s federal guarantees, but that hardly seems unfair given the added earnings of the student.

Nevertheless, Senator Chris Dodd, an advocate of the Clinton program, contends that even middle-class families can ill afford to send their kids to college. That’s now accepted as a truism, but it is not obviously correct. More than three-quarters of the best students currently go on to higher education. Qualified students unable to get a college education because of finances are few. Policymakers need to acknowledge that not everyone needs a university degree to find fulfillment in life. Some young people are not academically oriented or interested; others have found more satisfying ways to spend their lives. The federal government shouldn’t be pushing them to go to school.

Anyway, the fact that higher education, especially at elite private universities, strains many family budgets is hardly surprising, since the dramatic increase in federal educational aid has helped fuel a rapid rise in tuition. Further flooding the educational system with money is likely to benefit administrators as much as students. The point is, if there’s more money available for schools to collect, they will do so.

Moreover, it is because of free-spending legislators that government now takes roughly half of national income, making it difficult for families to afford higher education. Politicians worried about middle-class taxpayers should therefore cut special-interest spending, not hike costs by several billion dollars, and perhaps tens of billions of dollars, through a national service program. In short, while the jump in federal educational assistance in the 1970s undoubtedly helped more students attend college, there is no reason to assume both that the majority of these marginal attendees benefited more than the cost of their education and that they could not have afforded school had tuitions not been artificially inflated and their families’ incomes been so sharply and unnecessarily reduced by taxes.


Opportunity Costs

Paying young people generous compensation for national service--they will receive tuition relief plus salary and health-care benefits to paint “darkened buildings,” as suggested by the President, or do police paperwork, proposed as part of the DLC’s program, or perform other “service”--entails forgoing whatever else could be done with that money. Moreover, it entails forgoing whatever else those young people could do. “Public service” has a nice ring to it, but there is no reason to believe, a priori, that a dollar going to national service will yield more benefits than an additional dollar spent on medical research, technological innovation, or any number of other private and public purposes. Indeed, the Clinton program would delay the entry of hundreds of thousands of people into the workforce every year, an economic impact that the President and his advisers appear not to have calculated. Yet the relative value of labor may rise in coming years as the population ages. As a result, the opportunity cost of diverting young people into extraneous educational pursuits and dubious social projects could rise sharply over time.

Another potentially important opportunity cost is diverting top quality men and women from the military. The end of the Cold War has sharply cut recruiting needs, but it has also reduced some of the allure of volunteering as well as the perceived national need. As a result, by summer 1992 the Army, which typically has a more difficult recruiting task than the other services, was about ten percent behind in signing up recruits for 1993. The military has even seen recruiting fall off in such traditional strongholds as northern Florida and other parts of the South. Yet various programs of educational benefits have always been an important vehicle for attracting college-capable youth into the military. Providing similar benefits for civilian service may hinder recruiting for what remains the most fundamental form of national service--defending the nation. The result, again, would be higher costs: economic, as more money would have to be spent to attract quality people; military, as the armed forces might become less capable; and moral, since military service would lose its preferred status, warranted by the uniqueness of the duties involved.

Still, there are undoubtedly many worthwhile tasks nationwide that people could do. The problem in many cases, however, is that government effectively bars private provision of such services. Minimum wage laws effectively forbid the hiring of dedicated but unskilled people and inhibit rehabilitation programs, like that run by the Salvation Army; restrictions on para-transit operations limit private transportation for the disabled. Licensing, zoning, and other unnecessary and often nonsensical regulations increase the price of day care. Similar sorts of restrictions harm private voluntarism as well. Health regulations prevent restaurants in Los Angeles and elsewhere from donating food to the hungry, for instance. In short, in many cases important needs are unmet precisely because of perverse government policy.

To the extent that serious problems remain, narrowly targeted responses are most likely to be effective. That is, it would be better to find a way to attract several thousand people to help care for the terminally ill than to lump that task with teaching, painting buildings, and a dozen other jobs to be solved by a force of hundreds of thousands. Talk of millions of “unmet social needs” is meaningless.

The Clinton program would simply assign people, people whose motivation would as likely be working off a school debt as “serving.” In fact, the government risks subverting the volunteer spirit by paying loan recipients too much. The DLC suggested that its program promoted sacrifice, yet University of Rochester economist Walter Oi estimated that the total compensation--salary, health care benefits, and untaxed educational/housing voucher for “serving”--was the equivalent of $17,500 annually after taxes, well above the mean earnings for high school graduates. The Clinton administration is equally generous, offering a tax-free educational voucher of $5,000 annually, plus nearly $9,000 in minimum wage compensation, along with health care and other benefits. As a result, students will see national service as a financially remunerative job option, not a unique opportunity to help the community.

Like the mythical Sirens, national service retains its allure. Argues Roger Landrum of Youth Service America, “Clinton has a shot at mobilizing the idealism and energy of a very significant number of young people, as Roosevelt did with the Civilian Conservation Corps and John F. Kennedy did with the Peace Corps.” Alas, President Clinton’s scheme would end up no bargain. It would likely create a nightmarish bureaucracy and increase an already out-of-control deficit. National service would also reinforce today’s misbegotten entitlement mentality while siphoning tens of thousands of young people out of productive private labor and into make-work projects. Finally, if the program inflated tuition levels as has student aid in the past, it probably wouldn’t even benefit many participants, but would fund college administrators more than students.

What we need instead is a renewed commitment to individual service. People, in concert 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 no 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 Big Brother. Some of the voluntarism 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 non-profit and some also through profit-making ventures. The point is, there is no predetermined definition of service, pattern of appropriate involvement, set of “needs” to be met or tasks to be fulfilled. America’s strength is its combination of humanitarian impulses, private association, and diversity. National service is an idea whose time will never come. We need service, not “national” service.


National Service: An Old Idea

And he said, “This will be the behavior of the king who will reign over you: He will take your sons and appoint them for his own chariots and to be his horsemen, and some will run before his chariots.

“He will appoint captains over his thousands and captains over his fifties, will set some to plow his ground and reap his harvest, and some to make his weapons of war and equipment for his chariots.

“He will take your daughters to be perfumers, cooks, and bakers.”

—I Samuel 8:11-13