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Sunday, November 1, 1998

Service Without a Smile

Is It Surprising That Coercion Distorts Charity?

Stop the presses! Here’s a news flash that will send shock waves through the country: school-based compulsory community service doesn’t engender the spirit of giving. Imagine that! When students are forced to be compassionate volunteers, they rebel and find ways to get around the system. Who’d have believed it?

In a recent article in the Washington Post, James Youniss and Miranda Yates are crestfallen because “a good idea is in danger of being subverted.” For six years the Maryland Board of Education has required students to perform 75 hours of community service before they can graduate from its schools. (Other districts around the country have similar programs.) But according to Youniss and Yates, “many are evading the requirement by meeting the letter, but not the spirit, of the law.” And some “students treat service as just another credential for their college applications.” Hard to believe, but there it is.

How are they evading their mandatory good deeds? The authors say students look for ways to “get the task over with as quickly and painlessly as possible.” Others want credit for activities such as babysitting, taking out the family’s trash, mowing a neighbor’s lawn, or setting up a dance at their schools. Youniss and Yates report that last year students who had put off doing their service were permitted at the last minute to satisfy the requirement by picking up litter on school grounds or reshelving books at the library. The authors write that “One 18-year-old student added that he would dig ditches but did not want to do anything involving people.”

This is not what the architects of “mandatory volunteerism” had in mind. They seem genuinely surprised at the results. If we are to believe them, they actually expected students, on command, to be overcome with charity and good will.

People who feel a general benevolence might wish to volunteer and help out others who are in some kind of difficulty. But it doesn’t follow that if people are forced by a bureaucracy to render service, they will become benevolent. They are more likely to be resentful of the imposition and find ways to discharge their obligations in the least onerous way possible. Should we really be surprised that some students see service as merely a task they have to get through in order to graduate?

Social engineers never get the point. They persist in thinking they may enact schemes without taking into account that, just like them, others have their own preferences and aspirations. People, particularly young people, don’t like to be forced. As Adam Smith wrote long ago, individuals are not pieces on a chessboard. If compelled to carry out someone else’s plan, they will resist or evade. Let’s hope that is always the case.

Youniss and Yates offer the standard defense of mandatory service: “Effective service programs give students the chance to do meaningful work that produces tangible results, such as feeding the hungry or the homeless, or bringing comfort to the elderly.” But that’s not the issue. Those opportunities exist without the school requirement. They are there for the taking. The programs don’t “give” students the chance to help others. They compel students to do so. That distinction may be lost on school administrators, but it is important nonetheless.

The purpose of the mandatory service program was summarized by Nancy S. Grasmick, who was the Maryland school superintendent of education when the program began. She said that “To make a contribution to the community and learning from that contribution helps one to become a lifelong learner.”

This has a phony ring to it. Whatever effects it might have, it is not clear why performing community service would instill a love of learning in children. And weren’t the schools theoretically doing that already? Is there a confession here that public school isn’t enough to develop an appreciation for the acquisition of knowledge?

Advocates of required service also like to tout its character-forming effects. But what about the effect of state compulsion on the character development of students? Let’s not forget this is a program at compulsory government schools. First the children are forced to attend government schools, some of which are little more than custodial centers. Then they are ordered to work without pay, in the name of charity, if they want to graduate. That sounds like standard government procedure: through force all good things can be achieved.

No one seems much interested in how institutional coercion misshapes character. One would hope that the purpose of education is to teach children to become independent, responsible, rights-respecting human beings who are fit to pursue their own happiness. But the lesson taught in public schools (and, sorry to say, many private schools) is that pervasive government knows best, not only as to what and how any given child should learn, but even how a child should relate to his community.

It’s hard to avoid the conclusion that mandatory service has the dual intention of marshaling manpower for approved missions and of indoctrinating students into the view that unpaid service to others is their duty. I wonder, for example, if a student would get credit for volunteering with an organization that defended property rights against statist environmentalism or that opposed the war on drugs.

We can be sure that students aren’t allowed to start small businesses to fulfill their requirement Why not? Because a business exists to make money, and school-based service programs forbid compensation of any kind. (One student was told his time in the Boy Scouts didn’t satisfy the requirement because he received compensation—merit badges.)

Running a small business (as a freely chosen activity) would teach some valuable lessons and would therefore be a worthwhile part of a private-school or homeschool curriculum. Students would learn that under capitalism one prospers by providing one’s fellow human beings with things they need and want. Think of the corollaries that students would come to appreciate: the marketplace rests on a harmony of interests among all people; the division of labor is a method of cooperating with total strangers scattered far and wide; one man’s gain is another man’s gain; consent is the only proper basis for dealing with others; peace and cooperation through the market make us all richer; benevolence flows out of freedom.

Any decent school should teach those lessons. But government schools can’t teach them without undermining their very reason for existence. How do you square compulsory attendance and school taxes with freedom and free markets? Government schools were set up because freedom wasn’t trusted. By design they have shifted a major part of child rearing from parent to state, and have equated subservience to authority with good citizenship. The English classical liberal Richard Cobden argued in the nineteenth century that the coercive hand of an overreaching government distorts the institutions of civil society, such as trade and religion. We can surely add charity to that list.

  • Sheldon Richman is the former editor of The Freeman and a contributor to The Concise Encyclopedia of Economics. He is the author of Separating School and State: How to Liberate America's Families and thousands of articles.