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Libertarians oppose National Service programs
Libertarians oppose National Service programs
Libertarian Solutions: What's wrong with national service
by Bill Winter
LP News Editor
Who owns you? That simple question is at the core of any discussion about the morality of national service programs.
If you own yourself, then politicians have no right to force you to perform so-called "public service" jobs or to serve in the military.
On the other hand, if the government owns you, then politicians have every right to tell you what to do. If they decide your country needs you to fight a war, tutor poor children, or plant trees, then you have no right to refuse -- since your labor belongs to them.
Not surprisingly, politicians never justify national service in such stark language. That would conflict with their constant rhapsodizing about it.
For the purposes of this discussion, we'll define national service broadly: Any government-mandated term of service, whether in the military, or for private or government agencies, or as a requirement to graduate from school. We'll also include quasi-national service: Any federal program that pays individuals to "volunteer" to do good works.
No matter how you define it, though, politicians tend to talk about national service in lofty, almost religious, terms.
For example, Senator John McCain (R-AZ) touts national service as a way to solve a "deeper spiritual crisis within our national culture." Former President Bill Clinton says it can "rekindle the spirit of democracy."
Other national service cheerleaders are equally effusive. The Potomac Institute said national service would end the "depression of the national spirit." The Left-wing Mother Jones magazine said it would be a great "social and racial equalizer." Right-winger William F. Buckley, Jr. said it is something Americans would "grow to love."
All this begs the question: If service is so glorious, and has so many benefits, why must it be mandatory? American politicians never answer that question. And, given the history of national service, that's not surprising.
The idea that the state has the right to force individuals into "public service" jobs or to serve in the military has always been irresistible to tyrants and to big-government theoreticians.
For example, in 1848, in The Communist Manifesto, Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels called for the "establishment of industrial armies" to perform (mandatory) work to help build a worker's paradise.
In the 1940s, Adolf Hitler touted pflichterfulling, or "fulfillment of duty." For Germans, that meant an obligation to "serve the community." The philosophical rationale behind it was encapsulated in the popular Nazi slogan: "Gemeinnutz vor Eigennutz!" ("The common interest before self!")
It's no coincidence that history's most oppressive ideologies have embraced the concept of national service. As the Ayn Rand Institute's Scott McConnell wrote in the New American (June 9, 1997), national service "is the essential collectivist idea."
"In Soviet Russia," McConnell wrote, "the requirement was to serve the proletariat; in Nazi Germany, it was service to the Volk [the people]; in various absolutist monarchies, it was service to the king; in some religious regimes, it's service to God."
Whatever the particular rationale, individuals were considered a "public good," to be used as the government directed.
Curiously, such an explicitly collectivist idea has had continuing appeal even in the United States, the world's most libertarian nation.
As early as 1910, American philosopher William James wrote an essay endorsing "a conscription of the whole youthful population" to work for the community.
In the 1930s, President Franklin D. Roosevelt created a "peacetime army" called the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC). Drawing a paycheck from Uncle Sam, more than 3 million Americans labored (voluntarily) to plant trees and restore national parks.
In the 1960s, presidents John F. Kennedy and Lyndon B. Johnson launched a flurry of public-service initiatives, including the Peace Corps, VISTA (Volunteers in Service to America), and the Job Corps. While still voluntary, these programs extended and formalized the federal government's role in directing and funding pubic-service work.
Fast-forward to 1994. With a flurry of publicity, President Clinton instituted the AmeriCorps, which paid young people to "volunteer" for a wide variety of social service organizations.
As part of his ongoing efforts to promote government-directed service programs, Clinton even sponsored the Presidents' Summit on America's Future in 1997 to encourage more volunteerism.
In a declaration that eerily echoed the rhetoric used by some of history's worst despots, Clinton and four former presidents informed Americans that they "owe a debt of service" and have "an obligation to give something back to the country and community."
By the late 1990s, such rhetoric had turned into law. In Maryland and about 200 local communities around the USA, school boards required young people to perform community service in order to graduate from high school.
Clinton praised such programs, saying that such mandated volunteering taught young Americans "the joy and duty of serving."
While Republicans at first opposed Clinton's AmeriCorps program, by the time President George W. Bush was elected, they embraced it -- after slapping on a fresh coat of red, white, and blue paint.
In 2002, Bush proposed spending $560 million on his USA Freedom Corps, which he said would expand Clinton's AmeriCorps. Bush said the program would recruit an additional 125,000-200,000 government-funded "volunteers" to build homes, teach literacy, assist police -- and "fight evil with acts of goodness."
So what's so bad about serving your community, even if the government is forcing you (or paying you) to do it?
Libertarians oppose such programs for four major reasons:
1) They are antithetical to the spirit of America.
The United States was founded on a radical notion: That the proper role of government is to protect the rights of citizens. In other words, individuals are the masters, and a (strictly limited) government is their servant.
National service turns that notion on its head. As Doug Bandow wrote in Cato Policy Analysis No. 190 (March 15, 1993): National service "programs ultimately assume that citizens are responsible, not to each other, but to the state. Mandatory, universal schemes unabashedly put private lives at the disposal of the government."
2) They get government more involved in private charities.
Like President Bush's plan to give federal money to religious charities, programs like the USA Freedom Corps have a damaging effect on philanthropic groups.
As Michael Tanner wrote in Cato Briefing Paper No. 62 (March 22, 2001) mixing government and charity could "undermine the very things that have made private charity so effective."
For example, he said, increased government involvement could leave private organizations "overwhelmed with paperwork and subject to a host of federal regulations," could leave groups increasingly dependent on government money and government-funded volunteers, and could politicize what should be compassionate or religious decisions.
"Most important," wrote Tanner, "the whole idea of charity could become subtly corrupted; the difference between the welfare state and true charity could be blurred."
3) Voluntary service programs can be a stepping stone to non-voluntary programs.
Many supporters of voluntary service programs are honest about what they really want: Mandatory service programs.
For example, Senator McCain supports a mandatory military draft or two-year term of equivalent civilian service, but says such a plan is "not currently politically practical."
However, as Bandow notes: "Proponents of a mandatory, universal system, such as Senator John McCain, see voluntary programs as a helpful first step."
David R. Henderson, an associate professor at the Naval Postgraduate School, agrees. As he wrote in Reason magazine (February 1993): "With the voluntary-service network in place, and with an existing constituency of organizations that benefit from the artificially cheap labor, the next step is compulsory service."
4) They are not needed.
Politicians promoting national service schemes suggest there is a lack of volunteers in America. They couldn't be more wrong.
According to the U.S. Department of Labor, 63.8 million Americans did some kind of volunteer work in 2003. That's 28.8% of the nation's population.
An earlier Gallup poll put the number even higher. It found that 48% of Americans volunteer every year, contributing over 19.5 billion hours of annual volunteer time.
In addition, more than three-quarters of American households donate to charity, according to the Cato Institute.
As past LP Executive Director Steve Dasbach said in a 1997 LP press release: "Politicians can't grasp the notion that Americans don't need to be bribed or blackmailed into volunteering."
Given all these arguments against government-mandated or government-funded public service, here is what Libertarians would do to liberate Americans from it:
1) End mandatory "service" programs for young people.
Starting in 1997, Maryland required high school students to perform 75 hours of public service as a condition of graduation. Students had to work to meet "community needs" in the area of health, education, environment, or public safety.
Since then, 200 other local school districts have implemented a similar service requirement, and Illinois is currently mulling such a plan.
Ironically, while government schools are busy forcing students to build picnic tables and raise money to buy bulletproof vests for police dogs (both real projects), they are failing in their primary mission: To educate students. According to the 2000 National Assessment of Education Progress report, about one of four high school students are functionally illiterate when they graduate. They know how to "serve," but not how to read.
Even worse, such mandatory service programs make people less likely to volunteer later in life, according to a 1999 study in Psychological Science. Researchers found that when you force people to volunteer, they respond "by refusing to perform it once the mandate has been lifted."
2) Abolish Selective Service.
Selective Service may be the ultimate in useless government programs: It registers young men for a draft that doesn't exist.
Under federal law, every American male has 30 days to register with Selective Service once they turn 18. Penalties for failing to do so include four months in prison and/or a $2,500 fine.
Since it was restarted by President Jimmy Carter in 1980 -- to send a message of displeasure to the Soviet Union, which had just invaded Afghanistan -- the program has cost taxpayers about $600 million (or about $24 million a year).
Supporters say Selective Service is needed in case the U.S. goes to war and needs to suddenly mobilize large numbers of troops.
However, even the alleged beneficiary disputes that theory. Citing the success of the all-volunteer military, the Pentagon concluded in a 1993 report: "it is highly unlikely that we will have to reinstate the draft in the foreseeable future... [P]eacetime draft registration could be suspended without irreparable damage to national security."
3) Don't bring back the military draft.
Reinstating the draft is no longer just idle speculation: Legislation to do so has been filed in the U.S. House by Rep. Charles Rangel (D-NY), and in the U.S. Senate by Senator Fritz Hollings (D-SC).
Both cite an overextended U.S. military (a war in Iraq, the occupation of Afghanistan, and so on), and a need to make military service more inclusive and fair.
What they don't say is that a draft would almost certainly diminish the quality of the USA's best-in-the-world military.
Bandow made that point (March/April 1999) when he wrote: "If you look at any measure of quality today, our volunteer force is far superior to a conscript force. Conscription would force people who don't want to be in the military to serve and supplant people who do want to be there."
Rangel and Hollings also don't mention the coercive nature of a draft.
As Paul Jacob noted in a syndicated column (December 28, 2003): "Any tyrant can conscript an army. Saddam Hussein proved that. However, the unconquerable spirit that drives the American soldier comes from a free people. The American soldier is there because he chooses to be there." We should keep it that way.
4) Abolish all federal "paid volunteer" programs such as AmeriCorps and the USA Freedom Corps.
In 1993, when President Clinton unveiled his AmeriCorps program, he also created the perfect government oxymoron: The paid volunteer.
According to Clinton, volunteers would receive a "modest" stipend (and money to pay for college) in exchange for working for social-service organizations. Well, that depends on what your definition of "modest" is.
According to the Heritage Foundation, the program spent an average of $30,000 for each two-year "volunteer." That price tag included a $7,400 annual salary, $9,450 worth of college expenses, and recruitment and administrative costs. That works out to a $7.27 per hour salary, plus medical benefits and free child care.
Was that $30,000 well spent? You decide.
James Bovard (in the American Spectator, July/August 2000), reported that AmeriCorps workers put on a puppet show in California to warn 4-year-olds of the dangers of earthquakes, and helped run a program in New York that gave children $5 for each toy gun they brought in.
In 1999, the Cato Institute's Derrick Max also reported that AmeriCorps sent 142 employees and consultants to a "community service conference" at Caesar's Palace in Las Vegas at a cost of several million dollars.
AmeriCorps employees also have a bad habit of using government funds to promote ... other government programs.
For example, writing for the Capital Research Center (September 2000), Bovard reported that AmeriCorps members in Delaware recruited women for the Women, Infants and Children (WIC) welfare program; signed people up for government housing subsidies in Virginia; and conducted door-to-door canvassing in Mississippi to help people sign up for food stamps.
The AmeriCorps program, rather than being an inexpensive way to inspire young people do good, turned out to be a costly boondoggle that paid young people to perform not-very-useful tasks.
Who owns you? How you answer that question will determine whether you believe that Americans should be legislated (or bribed) into doing public service work and forced to serve in the military.
For Libertarians, the answer is clear: You are a sovereign individual. You own yourself. You own your time, your energy, your talent, and your work.
Libertarians also understand that coercive "volunteering" is not necessary. Americans have a long history of rallying to defend the nation in times of genuine crisis, and stepping forward to help their fellow citizens in need. They've never needed a politician or government bureaucrat to force them to do so.
As Bandow noted, real volunteering -- and real compassion -- needs neither "oversight nor subsidy from Big Brother. True compassion is going to [flow] from the grassroots up, not from Washington down."
We'll end with this thought: While (real) volunteering and (forced) national service have some similarities, there is one profound difference...
National service is a product of government power, bureaucracy, and coercion. Volunteering, on the other hand, is the highest tribute to the American spirit of cooperation, compassion, and liberty. That makes all the difference.
|By Rick Weber (188.8.131.52) on Saturday, March 28, 2009 - 3:41 pm: Edit Post|