October 31, 2003 - Chicago Sun Times: National Service is not supposed to be servitude

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National Service is not supposed to be servitude



National Service is not supposed to be servitude

It's not supposed to be servitude

October 31, 2003

BY ANDREW GREELEY
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Several of the Democratic presidential candidates have proposed plans for national service, usually so far down on their platforms that no one ever hears about them. It's an old idea that has been around for a long time, whose time has not come and ought never to come.

The assumption behind it is that young men and women should be forced to spend some time in their lives (six months to two years, in most forms of this proposal) in the service of their country, and perhaps be subject to later call-up. In this view, the government has the right to demand such service and to pass laws that will constrain them to it. In some forms such service would give the president the right to ''call up'' a certain number of them for special service when needed, just as he can now call up the National Guard and the Reserves.

The problem with this line of reasoning, which astonishingly appeals to many of those who call themselves ''liberals,'' is that while people of every age may well have some moral obligation to serve their country, there is no obligation to serve the government of the country. The slippery equation of the country with the government is a dangerous intrusion into the freedom of citizens. If the young are the special targets of such service, then it is a form of regressive taxation against them in favor of older people. It is also a form of imprisonment without due process. Because you're young, we have the right to call on you to serve the country in ways that interfere with your education, your life plans, your freedom of choice.

If young men and women wish to volunteer for either public service like the Peace Corps or private services like those affiliated with most religious denominations, then more power to them. If they don't want to do that, no one has the right to coerce them to do so. Moreover, the notion of volunteer service as a requirement for graduation is an oxymoron. If you have to do it, then it's not voluntary. It is laughable that high schools that usually do not teach young people to think for themselves or to write a decent paragraph of the English language assume that they have the right to engage in ''character formation'' outside the school environment.

The school ought to be content to provide opportunities for service but not force young men and women to engage in the opportunities, just as the government should make available opportunities but not constrain anyone to sign up for anything. Moreover, since the government is notoriously inept at running anything that involves thousands of men and women, the more of these opportunities that are private the better.

To reward volunteers for their service seems to defeat the altruistic theme of being a volunteer. On the other hand, one could argue that if there were some educational reward, young women like Jessica Lynch would not be forced to risk their lives in foolish wars so they could go to college.

Volunteer service looks good on one's resume, but a good resume should not be the primary motive for volunteer service, or it stops being volunteer. More generally, the government should not try to bribe young men and women to volunteer for anything.

The national service obsession, which has been around for a long time, is a manifestation of the (Calvinist) liberal temptation to do good. If that kind of liberal determines that something would be good for someone else to do, then it's perfectly all right to force him to do it. It is good for the young to serve their country (which means their government), therefore we will force them to do it. In my tradition (here represented classically by Aquinas), virtue is acquired by the repetition of free acts. To be honest, however, many in my tradition have devoted their lives to imposing virtue on everyone.

Finally, the national service temptation could easily be transformed into a draft if the government decided, for example, that it needs 10 more divisions right away. The military was good for me, older lunkheads frequently argue; it made a man out of me. Their memories are doubtless highly selective. What is the contemporary military or national service likely to do for women, save to give them practice in resisting rape?



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Story Source: Chicago Sun Times

This story has been posted in the following forums: : Headlines; National Service; Speaking Out

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