Involuntary Associations and National Service.--

Unlike some European systems of the past two centuries, the American tradition is for individuals to form their own diverse communities and for each community to govern itself to the extent possible. Universal national service seems to reverse the direction of this relationship: its goal is to use the government to transform people to fit within the government's vision of what's important and how one should serve. Senator Barack Obama makes that government direction clear, promising us that his administration "will direct that service to our most pressing national challenges," eschewing the traditional American approach of having the government take its direction from the diverse choices of its people.

As de Tocqueville understood, voluntary associations are valuable not merely on account of what they accomplish, either for participants or for others, but also because they establish cultural and political forces in society independent of government. In modern society, and perhaps especially in America, each individual stands alone as an independent citizen in relation to the state, and individuals are therefore peculiarly dependent on voluntary associations to ensure that the state does not acquire a monopoly of cultural and political influence. Voluntary associations help to protect us from what de Tocqueville called "the tyranny of the majority."

In Mr. Obama's vision of voluntary organization, however, the government would develop, coordinate, and focus the efforts of private individuals and their associations, which thus would lose their independence and much of their capacity to offer alternatives to the state and its vision of life. Indeed, far from challenging the state and holding it accountable, morally or politically, many private associations would become aligned with the state. Rather than being alternatives to government, they would become its instruments.

One of John Locke's most important philosophical moves was to posit a state of limited powers. Not all good things must be within the state or be promoted by the state. For example, the sovereign could be persuaded of the good of the "one true religion" and yet could believe that it would be best for the state to be cautious about promoting that religion.

That crucial Enlightenment insight helped end centuries of European religious wars. Among twentieth-century governments, most communist, fascist, and sharia-based regimes rejected that Enlightenment view and tried to bring within their ambit all things that the state considered good -- with predictable results for human flourishing and freedom.

A key element in the rise of modern life, both its freedom and its prosperity, was the substitution of taxation for personal services, a development that allowed individuals to spend their time on what they know and love -- on tasks in which they have a comparative advantage. Being more productive as a result of this freedom, individuals can spare more of the fruits of their labor for the community.

This move from services in kind to financial payment by taxes was and is a matter of personal liberty. Such a transition was essential if individuals were no longer to be serfs in service to their lord or other communal authorities. Except for a military draft (which should be contemplated only in dire emergencies), individuals these days are mostly free to engage in voluntary activities for the benefit of themselves and others.


Mandatory community service sucks in much that is private and diverse and spits out an excessively homogenized version of the good, a version that would come with a government seal of approval.

It's probably not an accident that many American groups who tend to favor greater government largesse are relatively stingy in their own donations to charity. Nor do I think it an accident that Americans are the most generous people in the world, while the few European countries that have universal military or community service have populations that fall far short of America's in donating their time and money to the less fortunate. For charity work to be truly transformative in a positive way, perhaps it must be truly voluntary. That coerced service can be transformative without endangering freedom is even more improbable.

By bringing voluntary charitable activity under government control and by presenting his scheme as a "civilian national security force," Mr. Obama is breaking down the barriers between private and public life, between individual choice and government programs, between childhood education and adult employment, and between the diversity of freely chosen efforts on behalf of one's neighbors and subservience to the government's vision of the good.

JimT (mail):
Some time ago it was established that Freedom is Slavery. Mr. Obama is just trying to keep us from falling into that trap. How can that be wrong?
8.29.2008 12:31am
mad the swine (mail):
Heh, twenty-some comments on your Obama speech post, none here. I'm sensing some tl;dr :P

"A key element in the rise of modern life, both its freedom and its prosperity, was the substitution of taxation for personal services, a development that allowed individuals to spend their time on what they know and love -- on tasks in which they have a comparative advantage. Being more productive as a result of this freedom, individuals can spare more of the fruits of their labor for the community."

Precisely! What I think Obama and his supporters forget is that we all participate in national service already (that is, those of us who pay taxes do, which of course leaves out most of the people voting for Obama), and do so in a far more efficient fashion (by indirectly hiring professionals to do whatever services the government wants) than we would were we to be put to work in Obamiac labor camps.

Of course, efficiency is not the point; marching the children into work camps where they can be properly molded into good little Liberal Fascists is. Mandatory national service is about brainwashing the next generation beyond even what the public schools can manage...
8.29.2008 12:42am
David Warner:

Thank you for taking the time to make this argument so forcefully and cogently.

We participate in service already (which, in an organic way could be considered "national") not only through our tax dollars and voluntary associations, but most markedly in our various professions, many of which revolve around the concept of (customer) service. Hence, the service economy.
8.29.2008 12:51am
Anonymous #000:
Too long, but I did read; and I agree with every word. No comment necessary. (Except this one.)
8.29.2008 1:24am
Compelled charity confuses rape with love.
8.29.2008 8:11am
Richard Aubrey (mail):
In more blessed (developing, authentic, non-western) societies, it used to be called corvee labor. Imagine diacritical marks over one of the "e"s.
8.29.2008 8:15am
Yankev (mail):
Mr. Obama's statist views are the more dangerous because he is not just "Mr." Obama, but Senator Obama.

Heaven help us if he becomes President Obama.
8.29.2008 11:06am
postroad (mail) (www):
the usual ranking and badmouthing sans substance. In fact, what do we have to show after 7 years of Bush?
that said: most European nations do not need money given to help the unfortunate: taxes take care of that. You may not like that system but try to employ a useful example.

I do not give to anything because in just about all cases the money is sucked off for "administrative" purposes.
8.29.2008 11:24am
James Lindgren (mail):

Sorry, but your argument doesn't wash.

I didn't limit charity to help to people WITHIN the country. Why is the US the most generous country helping the rest of the world? Both governmental AND INDIVIDUAL efforts.

Jim Lindgren
8.29.2008 11:41am
Mikeyes (mail):
I question if the assumption that mandatory national service will "use the government to transform people to fit within the government's vision of what's important and how one should serve."

I agree that our history in this regard certainly dictated how one should serve, but I doubt that it changed the participants into pro-government robots. In fact the first instance of this policy almost cost us the Civil War.

I am talking about the draft, of course, and as a participant in that process I can tell you that it did not make me more pro-government (in this case policy was the Viet Nam war.) I do believe in public service, however, and I stayed in the reserves for that reason after my two years of service until I got too old to serve any more.

Mandatory service is something I do not approve of and if it has to be used, there better be a very good reason for it. WWI was not a good reason, WWII was, Viet Nam was not. So we are one out of three (or four if you count Korea but that was a carry over from WWII.) On the other hand, voluntary joining of benevolent organizations (like the Red Cross, Peace Corps, or the Marines) often is a life changing experience that people treasure.

Personally I think that offering your life in the defense of the country is the highest form of public service, but I prefer to offer it rather than have it offered.
8.29.2008 12:02pm
does postroad consider the amount of money wasted by governmental entities in his equation? perhaps you don't give to anything because you are a miser rather than high minded concern about administrative costs?
8.29.2008 12:08pm
Jane (mail):

The beauty of giving to private charities is that you can withdraw your support at any time if you determine they are negligent in the way the use your money. With government 'charity' you're stuck - you cannot withdraw your support if they mis-manage anything without the risk of jail or loss of property.
8.29.2008 12:13pm
JAL (mail):
postroad don't be so presumptive -- or lazy. Go look up the organizations -- they have to disclose how much $$ goes to each aspect of the work -- including administration.

There are some out there I am sure that would meet your stringent standards. If you really want to share your wealth by choice, that is. (Why do I think not?)

If not, BO will be glad to separate you from some more of it.
8.29.2008 12:22pm
vinnie (mail):
I think that bringing back the military draft will go a long way towards saving this country. Especially the education system. Nothing like the rear of being handed a rifle and sent into combat to make you an informed voter.
8.29.2008 12:24pm
wagnert in atlanta (mail):
Postroad: So you don't give to charity because the money is sucked off for "administrative" purposes. How is substituting compulsory Federal service for private charity going to solve that problem? Consider the FEMA ice capades. $100 million worth of ice was purchased for Katrina relief. 60% was eventually delivered somewhere in the Katrina-affected area -- sometimes because local officials hijacked it from paralytic Federal officials. The rest was given an extensive tour of the country -- $5000 worth given $15000 worth of truck miles, for example -- then expensively stored for two years and thrown out. And those aren't administrative expenses, as commonly understood. No example springs to mind of a private charity wasting money in such feckless fashion. Why give government the opportunity to waste young peoples' time and effort?
8.29.2008 12:36pm
Barbara Skolaut (mail):
It's probably not an accident that many American groups who tend to favor greater government largesse are relatively stingy in their own donations to charity.
No, it's not. And they seem to be stingy with not only their money, but their time. How much time have the Obamas (and others of their ilk) ever given - not in occasional committee meetings, but committing themselves to regular, ongoing work for a particular charity?

They don't freely give of their own time to do actual work for a charity (say, for example, deliver Meals on Wheels once a week, or even once a month) - I'm guessing because it's not in their nature - so they assume the government has to force everyone else to help others.

No matter how much lipstick you put on this pig, "mandatory service" is not service to others, it's mandatory work to please our "betters" (as the Obamas and a lot of other rich liberals obviously think they are). So even though it's required by the government instead of by an individual, it still smacks of slavery.

I thought we settled the slavery question in this country in 1865. Silly me.

(And before you ask, yes, I've done physical, in-the-trenches volunteer work all of my life - because I was raised that way - and no, I'm not a Republican.)
8.29.2008 12:38pm
jukeboxgrad (mail):

Consider the FEMA ice capades.

What a great illustration of a very important and much-overlooked phenomenon. The GOP runs government ineptly, and then it turns around and campaigns on the premise that government is bad and should be marginalized because government is inept. A brilliant strategy.

In recent years we have found out what happens when we put government in the hands of people who oppose the very idea of government, and would prefer to just "drown it in the bathtub."

The proper solution to inept government is to fix it, not destroy it. The GOP's agenda is the latter. The GOP wins when we lose our faith in government, so the GOP is always happy to run government in way that encourages us to be cynical about government. As Obama said last night:

If you don't have a record to run on, then you paint your opponent as someone people should run from. You make a big election about small things.

And you know what? It's worked before, because it feeds into the cynicism we all have about government. When Washington doesn't work, all its promises seem empty. If your hopes have been dashed again and again, then it's best to stop hoping and settle for what you already know.

The GOP is counting on the support of hopeless and cynical voters who think we can't do better than the party that gave us "the FEMA ice capades."
8.29.2008 1:52pm
Suzy (mail):
Again, several separate ideas and proposals are being mixed up together here. As I read Obama's proposal, the "mandatory" portion comes only from the way he suggests tying school funding to the development of service learning programs. Is there any evidence that he wants mandatory service in any other sense, for any other group?

That leaves the rest of the proposal that can be more fairly called "encouraging" service. I would like to know how the above criticisms of private, voluntary associations becoming too closely aligned with the state would apply to things like Americorps, Teach for America, and the Peace Corps. These programs turn away thousands of people every year because they cannot accommodate everyone who could be serving. However, they seem like pretty good organizations that are doing good work, and I don't get the sense that when people join them, it threatens our ability to form voluntary associations that provide legitimate alternatives to state action. Is the Red Cross going to cease operations, for example, just because more people are given an opportunity to serve in govt. funded programs?

In short, where is the downside to encouraging more service of this kind?
8.29.2008 2:34pm
kurt9 (mail):

You are indeed correct when you say that tying funding of the schools to community service is the only thing Obama is actually proposing. His website is proposing a $4,000 a year educational tax credit being contingent to public service. I do not see any way how he can go beyond these ideas.

I would be interested in knowing how "public service" is to be defined for the purposes of these programs.

Lets say I own and run a laboratory that does experiments in new physics ideas or in biotechnology. I decide to visit the local high school in my area and get some of the brainy kids to work in my lab (to get hands on experience doing pioneering research that they would normally not get anywhere else). Let say further that my lab was doing research into the possibility of novel propulsion physics or biotech research into curing currently incurable diseases.

Would such research (to open up the space frontier or cure incurable diseases) qualify as public service, or would the definition of public service be limited to only social work?

I think you can see where I am going with this. Does it make sense to take bright kids (say 130 IQ range) and make them do social work when they could instead be doing pioneering scientific research that could lead to a cure for cancer? I think everyone here would argue that the former would be an incredible inefficient use of human capital.
8.29.2008 6:33pm
kurt9 (mail):
In fact, the point of schools is to create citizens.

This is the commie-fascist purpose of the schools.

The real purpose of the schools and, indeed, of any kind of education is to provide the cognitive self-empowerment so that one can go out into the world and create whatever future you want for yourself.
8.29.2008 6:42pm