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Friday, September 7, 2007

The Nation as an Object of Service

What distinguishes the libertarian (liberal) spirit from its alternative is the conviction that free individuals who respect one another's sovereignty will generate and sustain a benevolent prosperous social order without direction from a central bureaucratic authority. Atomistic individualism never had anything to do with genuine liberalism, which is a social philosophy that looks to the cooperation inherent in the division of labor and free exchange to deliver its material and nonmaterial benefits. The market — the realm of consent, contract, and mutual accommodation — always was thought to include nonpecuniary relationships.

Those who see heavy-handed government as the indispensable antidote for atomistic individualism have long beat up on that pathetic straw man. But atomistic individualism is something more than a straw man useful in the attempt to discredit liberalism. The critics of liberalism seem sincerely to believe that without a strong central authority, society would degenerate and dissolve, as though mere people — as opposed to leaders — are too benighted to fend for themselves. In this alternative worldview, centralized power is the glue that binds us together. For the liberal, no such glue was needed. The advantages of individualism embedded in social cooperation — call it molecular individualism — are too obvious to be overlooked. (Children spontaneously discover the gains from trade at an early age.) That shows how great the chasm is between real liberalism and all forms of illiberalism.

One can readily see illiberalism all around. In the current issue of Time magazine, Richard Stengel, the magazine's managing editor, calls for universal national service in his article A Time To Serve. Stengel says the program he has in mind would be voluntary, not mandatory. Americans don't like to be told what they have to do; many have argued that requiring service drains the gift of its virtue. It would be based on carrots, not sticks — 'doing well by doing good,' as Benjamin Franklin, the true father of civic engagement, put it.

Let's be thankful for Stengel's wish not to compel anyone to participate. This is good for two reasons. The obvious one is that forced service is slavery, even if it is temporary. By what right could the individuals constituting the government require people to perform civilian or military tasks? What do those Fourth of July platitudes mean if we are to have compulsory labor? That this could even be suggested in a society that considers itself free only shows what strangers many thinkers are to reason.

Stengel's voluntarism is also good because it lets us examine the essence of his proposal without getting sidetracked on the issue of compulsion. In a putatively free society there is something wrong with universal national service even if it is voluntary.

One more thing to clear out of the way. Stengel's program is not entirely voluntary. Those who would pay for it would have no choice in the matter because it would be financed through taxation — i.e., fiscal force. For example, he wants the government to invest $5,000 for every baby born. When a person reaches 18 he or she could have the money and interest but only by pledging to do a year's civilian or military service. That's one of the carrots of which he speaks. (The money could only be used for school, starting a business, or buying a house.) Stengel may believe there is no better use of our money than to pay for his service program, but many of us will respectfully disagree.

The Republic

Stengel begins with the overtold story of Benjamin Franklin's admonition to a woman who, after the Constitutional Convention, asked if the country was to be a monarchy or a republic. A republic, if you can keep it, Franklin replied. (There it's been told yet again. A better question would have been, Why did you scrap the perfectly good Articles of Confederation, Dr. Franklin. We've have 13 small republics running acceptably well for eight years. Not enough central government for you?) Stengel continues:

But at this moment in our history, 220 years after the Constitutional Convention, the way to get citizens involved in civic life, the way to create a common culture that will make a virtue of our diversity, the way to give us that more capacious sense of we — finally, the way to keep the Republic — is universal national service. No, not mandatory or compulsory service but service that is in our enlightened self-interest as a nation. We are at a historic junction; with the first open presidential election in more than a half-century, it is time for the next President to mine the desire that is out there for serving and create a program for universal national service that will be his — or her — legacy for decades to come. It is the simple but compelling idea that devoting a year or more to national service, whether military or civilian, should become a countrywide rite of passage, the common expectation and widespread experience of virtually every young American.

Where to begin? We might start by pointing out that the discussion ought to be directed not to keeping the republic but restoring it. I don't know what Stengel's been doing for the last, oh, couple centuries, but this ain't the republic it used to be. (And maybe it never was.) When you consider the flow of power to Washington and, within Washington, to the executive branch, what we have looks more and more like an elective monarchy than a republic. Add to this the incumbent-protection system and the untouchable regulatory fourth branch, and any resemblance to a republic is almost entirely cosmetic.

Stengel is quite certain that universal national service is the way to get citizens involved in civil life, create a common culture, and give us that more capacious sense of 'we.' But he should have first demonstrated 1) that we need those things done and 2) that government is the instrument for doing them. Before the quote above, Stengel writes, There had been only a handful of other republics in all of human history, and most were small and far away. The founders' pessimism, though, came not from history but from their knowledge of human nature. A republic, to survive, needed not only the consent of the governed but also their active participation. It was not a machine that would go of itself; free societies do not stay free without the involvement of their citizens.

There's always a danger in talking about the founders. They were not a homogeneous group. Whom does Stengel have in mind, Jefferson or Hamilton? Patrick Henry or James Madison? The Federalists or the Anti-federalists? The more libertarian of the founders would agree that a republic isn't a machine on autopilot. But the involvement they had in mind was more along the lines of eternal vigilance (the phrase is the Irishman John Philpot Curran's), jealousy (Jefferson), and localism, not whatever Stengel means by national service. The object of involvement was the preservation of liberty by keeping power caged, not the engineering of a common culture through government-managed associations.

As Stengel laments the detachment of the average American from the affairs of the republic, he might re-read (or, more likely, read) the Anti-federalist papers, for the critics of the proposed Constitution (consolidation) warned prophetically that a large territorial republic, as opposed to a confederation of small republics, was unviable, worked against popular participation, and would likely end in tyranny and empire. As Pennsylvania Minority put it in 1787,

[I]t is the opinion of the most celebrated writers on government, and confirmed experience, that a very extensive territory cannot be governed on the principles of freedom, otherwise than by a confederation of republics, possessing all the powers of internal government; but united in the management of their general, and foreign concerns…. [S]hould it be demonstrated, that the powers vested by this constitution in Congress, will have such an effect as necessarily to produce one consolidated government, the question then will be reduced to this short issue, viz., whether satiated with the blessings of liberty; whether repenting of the folly of so recently asserting their unalienable rights, against foreign despots at the expence of so much blood and treasure, and such painful and arduous struggles, the people of America are not willing to resign every privilege of freemen, and submit to the dominion of an absolute government, that will embrace all America in one chain of despotism; or whether they will with virtuous indignation, spurn at the shackles prepared for them, and confirm their liberties by a conduct becoming freemen.

If this view is right, then it is the height of irony to look to the central government to restore republican virtue.

Ancient Notions

The early nineteenth-century French liberal Benjamin Constant identified a distinction that seems lost on Stengel and many others. Constant pointed out that that there is an ancient notion of liberty and a modern notion of liberty. In the ancient world liberty meant participation in the polity, but once a collective decision was made, the individual was obliged to go along. But the modern notion makes such participation but a tiny fraction of what comprises liberty. The major part consists in the autonomy of the individual:

It is the right of everyone to express their opinion, choose a profession and practice it, to dispose of property, and even to abuse it; to come and go without permission, and without having to account for their motives or undertakings. It is everyone's right to associate with other individuals, either to discuss their interests, or to profess the religion which they and their associates prefer, or even simply to occupy their days or hours in a way which is most compatible with their inclinations or whims.

If Stengel thinks universal service is the key to maintaining (or restoring) a republic, he is clearly an ancient. A modern, in the classical-liberal Enlightenment sense, would understand that top-down direction of people's activities is not only unnecessary to civil society but inimical to it. State demands on individuals are anathema to the liberal outlook. As Proudhon said, liberty is not the daughter but the mother of order.

I hope I won't be accused of exaggerating Stengel's position. Read his own words: [T]he next President can harness the spirit of volunteerism that already exists and make it a permanent part of American culture…. [T]he next President — whatever party — should set a goal to enlist at least 1 million Americans annually in national service by the year 2016.

Pardon, but the words president and harness in the same sentence make me uneasy. A president has no business harnessing much of anything at all.

Americans are ready to be asked to do something, Stengel says. Who are these people waiting for the state to ask them to do something. And why should they be obliged? As we say, get a life. People who really want to do something don't wait to be asked. They do it. Stengel acknowledges that volunteerism and civic participation since the '70s are near all-time highs. So what's he going on about anyway?

Everything wrong with Stengel's proposal is summed up in his phrase universal national service. Don't misunderstand what he's saying. He's not talking about people doing good deeds for others who need help, but rather service to a quasi-mystical entity: The Nation. Why else does he call it national service? In Stengel's view, only through such service can citizens attain fulfillment and all of them together become a unified We. It's sheer collectivism and nationalism, the history of which isn't terribly attractive. We've heard such appeals before — Italy in the 1920s and '30s, if I'm not mistaken.

  • 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.