Advocates of the program make four basic arguments in its favor.
First, they appeal to the spirit of September 11, when the American people generously gave more than $1 billion as well as other forms of assistance to the victims of terrorism and their families. The argument is that the United States as a nation should tap into that spirit to help solve ongoing problems in our communities.
Secondly, they appeal to Americans' long tradition of civic initiative. John Bridgeland, the Bush aide in charge of the public-service effort, cites Alexis de Tocqueville'sDemocracy in America as showing that Americans, more than any other people, have always volunteered to help their neighbors and their communities rather than waiting for government to step in. The USA Freedom Corps is supposed to make it easier for them to do so.
A third, related argument invokes an American tradition of national service, quoting John F. Kennedy's famous line: "Ask what you can do for your country."
The fourth and most basic argument for the program, its advocates say, is the need to inculcate a spirit of service in Americans. Leslie Lenkowsky, head of AmeriCorps, the public-service organization founded in 1993, says that the Bush program will provide "opportunities for young people to learn how to be 'social heroes.'" Bridgeland, according to an admiring Washington Post article, says the goal is "helping Americans live what the ancient philosophers called 'the good life.'" The premise, says Bridgeland, "is that getting outside yourself and serving other people is fundamental to a complete and happy self."
Some critics have argued that, since individual Americans are engaged in community service already, there is no need for the government to encourage it. Others have asked how service can be truly voluntary if it is a response to government inducements. Still others have pointed to the record of corruption and inefficiency in existing programs such as
Such objections are valid but they ignore the essential issues. After all, similar arguments might be made against legitimate government functions. For example, there might be waste, fraud, and corruption in Defense Department programs, but that hardly disproves the need for national defense.
Bush administration advocates are correct in saying that the volunteerism program affects the moral basis of society and is far more significant than the small amount of money (by government standards) that will be spent on it. Indeed, they should be congratulated for elevating the debate to the philosophical level where it belongs, by contrast with the Clinton administration's view of AmeriCorps as just another welfare state handout meant to create political support for Clinton and his cronies. And precisely because the arguments for the Bush program are philosophical, they deserve philosophical answers. To foreshadow those answers: The program distorts the context of the charity evoked by September 11. It distorts the ethical meaning of America's tradition of volunteerism and the foundations of America's tradition of public service based on rational self-interest. Worst of all, it seeks to imbue Americans with a false moral ideal.
The USA Freedom Corps
Under President Bush's proposed USA Freedom Corps, the major federal volunteer programs will be consolidated into three services.
The only one that is at least philosophically defensible is the Citizen Corps for homeland security. National defense is a legitimate activity for the federal government and sharing in the task is an honorable activity for citizens. However, there are serious civil-liberty concerns about even this part of the Bush program and questions about whether these are functions that should be undertaken by the federal government, as opposed to state or local governments. Under the program, local Citizens Corps Councils will be established. The federal government plans to provide $3 million in fiscal year 2003 for volunteers for local police departments; $6 million for local Neighborhood Watch and other such programs; $10 million for a Medical Reserve Corp; $61 million to triple the local community emergency efforts; $8 million for a Terrorist Information and Prevention System to allow individuals to report suspicious individuals and occurrences.
A far more objectionable, but already existing, division is the Peace Corps, established in 1961 to pay volunteers to serve in foreign countries, principally teaching health, literacy, and other basic skills. The administration wants to double the number of employees to about 15,000 and expand activities to more countries. It will spend $200 million annually for this program.
Largely new, and highly objectionable, is the Corporation for National and Community Service. It will oversee AmeriCorps, created by President Clinton to facilitate volunteer efforts in the United States. One part of AmeriCorps hands out tax dollars to help college students with tuition. In exchange, upon graduation those students must work for several years in service programs, receiving paychecks from the federal government.
AmeriCorps was denounced by most Republicans during the Clinton era. But today, with a few bold exceptions—House Majority Leader Dick Armey is a standout— most Republicans are mute. Bush wants to add 25,000 more participants to the current crop of 50,000 and to spend $230 million per year for the program. Bush also wants to insist that universities using Federal Work Study assistance devote half of those funds to community-service projects, adding 200,000 to 300,000 students to the serving sector.
Another part of the Corporation for National and Community Service is the Senior Corps, created so that those over 55 can participate in their own program. Eventually, Bush would like 100,000 older Americans in this program. The price tag is $50 million in fiscal year 2002, just to get the program going.
The 9/11 Argument
The September 11 attack on the United States gave Americans a powerful reason to rally to the defense of their country's freedom. But we cannot simply assume that the Bush administration's USA Freedom Corps therefore has a rational justification. Instead, we must look closely at the justifications that are actually given for the programs. When we do, we will see that they contain profound philosophical errors that will make the programs work against the best interests of individuals, the freedom of our society, and the very spirit of benevolence that they seek to foster.
In his State of the Union address, President Bush said: "After America was attacked, it was as if our entire country looked into a mirror and saw our better selves. We were reminded that we are citizens, with obligations to each other, to our country, and to history. We began to think less of the goods we can accumulate, and more about the good we can do." In short, the president was saying that Americans are not at their best when they are enhancing their lives and happiness; rather, they are at their best when they are helping others in distress. By establishing permanent programs, the president implied that we must pursue this "better self" not just in times of emergencies but in ordinary times as well.
That represents a thorough distortion of the moral significance of 9/11.
When one's social context (culture, society, polity) faces an emergency such as a war or natural disaster, it is entirely self-interested to subordinate temporarily one's personal goals while joining in the shared goal of restoring that social context. But the motive for setting aside one's goals is precisely to restore the social context in which one can again pursue one's personal goals. Thus, there is nothing selfless about the situation; it is simply a matter of priorities. One does not vacuum one's rug when the neighborhood is burning down.
This is the context in which we must understand Americans' reaction to 9/11. It was a self-interested response to an emergency situation.
The ills that the Bush administration's service program seeks to address—poverty, illiteracy, hunger—are clearly not an emergency threat to our common social context. In some cases, they are simply the result of personal misfortune. In many cases, they are brought on by personal irresponsibility. In either case, they are part of everyday life. Bad things happen to good people, and they must deal with that fact as best they can. Individuals make poor choices in their lives, and they must deal with the consequences of that as best they can. A person who is down on his luck or who is seeking to straighten himself out may seek help from others and may well find it. But he can hardly say it is the obligation of others to give up their time and money in order to undo the damage that chance or turpitude has brought on him.
Ironically, many of the evils that community service is meant to alleviate are caused in part or whole by governments. The welfare system has for decades rewarded irresponsible behavior and protected individuals from the adverse consequences of their actions. Government schools have failed to teach many students to read. Government regulations have made it difficult for entrepreneurs to start small-scale businesses. Now, after all that government has extracted from Americans in taxes and the wasted time of regulation, the Bush administration wants citizens to give still more of their lives to undo the damage government has done. If governments would stop trying to manage the lives of individuals, an army of volunteers would not be needed to deal with the consequences.
But whether people suffer their ills as the result of misfortune, missteps, or government meddling, there is no moral reason to treat them like the victims of a natural disaster. As Ayn Rand observed: to apply emergency ethics in ordinary times assumes that men are trapped in a malevolent universe, where even normal conditions are so unsettled and unpredictable that individuals cannot as a rule take charge of their lives and actions; and that the lucky must therefore take care of the unlucky.
The obvious advantage of declaring society to be in such a permanent emergency is that it requires a permanent setting aside of personal goals, which is to say: it requires altruism. After World War II, a leader of the British Labour Party was asked what his party sought, and he said, revealingly, that they sought a return to the shared sacrifice of World War II. That is, he desired to make permanent the setting aside of personal goals that was justified by the emergency of wartime. By invoking the spirit of 9/11, the Bush administration is saying exactly the same thing. Of course, it is notorious that the former USSR created titles like "Hero of Soviet Labor" to bring a sense of wartime sacrifice to ordinary life. And it is therefore more than a little ominous to hear Leslie Lenkowsky of AmeriCorps speak of teaching young people to be "social heroes."
The Argument from American Volunteerism
A second argument for the Bush programs says that they continue America's long history of volunteerism, and advocates of public service especially like to quote Alexis de Tocqueville on this national tradition. According to a Washington Post story (March 17, 2002), Bridgeland quotes Tocqueville as saying, "Americans of all ages, all stations in life, and all types of dispositions are forever forming associations."
It is true that Americans have long been noted for their volunteer spirit, but those who today quote Tocqueville typically ignore his analysis of the ethical-political foundation underlying volunteerism: "As he [the American citizen] sees no particular ground of animosity to them [his fellow citizens], since he is never either their master or slave, his heart readily leans to the side of kindness." In short, American volunteerism emerges not from a sense that one is bound to serve others but precisely from a sense that one is not bound to serve others. That is, American volunteerism emerges from a spirit of ethical and political independence.
Thus, in a free culture, where we are not taxed to provide "work-study" funds for our neighbor's children, we might be inclined to help a promising student from a poor family. Why? As David Kelley wrote in Unrugged Individualism: "One gives something to a person not because he deserves it now, but because one senses that some long-range good may come of it."
But such judgments require that a person's benevolence be closely monitored, not poured forth at the direction of some federal bureaucrat. Thus, a benevolent individual might work with a friend or family member who, through laziness or some other moral weakness, has lost a job. One might judge that the individual is aware of his culpability, is not making excuses for the moral failing, is trying to mend his ways, and—this is most important—may still be of direct or indirect value to the benefactor. Such a benefactor would clearly not be rewarding the person's faults but, rather, helping the person strengthen his virtues.
Another sort of benevolence that has also been characteristic of America is the desire to celebrate productiveness and share its fruits. Aristotle called this the virtue of magnificence. In ancient times, one might build a temple for one's city. In modern times, one might endow a university or an organization for the enlightenment and edification of others. Early in America's history, James Smithson established the institute that bears his name. Henry Ford established Greenfield Village in Dearborn, Michigan, as a shrine to and celebration of industrial and technological achievement. He purchased and moved to Greenfield Village the bicycle shop in which the Wright Brothers built the first successful airplane and Thomas Edison's New Jersey laboratory. Naturally, the automotive industry that Ford helped create was a centerpiece. In such cases, individuals wish to promote in society their most important values.
It must be said, however, that although these forms of benevolence are virtuous, they are not primary virtues. They do not represent "our better selves," in President Bush's words. The pursuit of one's own material and spiritual values comes first ethically and also practically, for unless we produce we cannot give.
But, someone may object, America's social problems clearly are not being handled by personal benevolence privately undertaken. Evidently, the nineteenth-century spirit of individual volunteerism is no longer able to handle twenty-first-century problems.
Just on its face, this objection is absurd. America in 2002 is infinitely wealthier than when Tocqueville visited in 1831-32. A far greater proportion of U.S. citizens have incomes that exceed the cost of their basic needs in food, shelter, clothing, and transportation. So, if America's benevolence is less evident today, what is the reason?
The obvious culprit is the welfare state. In Tocqueville's day the federal government rarely exceeded 3 percent of gross domestic product. Today, it absorbs approximately 20 percent. Moreover, prior to the New Deal, rises in federal spending still seemed reasonably focused on legitimate government functions, such as pensions for Civil War soldiers. Today, people see their hard-earned wealth drained off by anyone who can claim to be needy, even if his need results from dissipation. No wonder people are disinclined to contribute voluntarily to the upkeep of bloodsuckers to whom they are already giving forced transfusion of tax money.
If President Bush succeeds in adding the public-service state to the welfare state, Americans' sense of benevolence toward their neighbors will decline even further. Their inclination to help the needy will be replaced by resentment toward those whose ills constitute an unchallengeable claim on their time and money. And the cheerful givers of Tocqueville's United States will become the sullen laborers of a federal corvée.
The Argument from National Service
If liberal advocates of Bush's program tend to use the populist "helping hands" argument, conservative advocates tend to use a more patrician argument from national service. In particular, they draw on the famous words of John F. Kennedy's inaugural address: "Ask not what your country can do for you. Ask what you can do for your country." In this connection, it is suggestive that an article in the conservative Weekly Standard touted the presidential campaign of Senator John McCain (Republican of Arizona) in an article entitled "Ask Not. . ." McCain was the sponsor of the public-service program that President Bush has now co-opted.
What needs to be said to such advocates is that JFK posed a false dichotomy. In a modern context, to ask what your country can do for you is not simply to demand that the government do the job it was established to do: protect the lives, liberty, and property of the citizenry. Rather, it is to demand that government grant you special favors, regulatory protection, handouts, or subsidies, at the expense of the liberty and property of others. The alternative offered, to ask what you can do for your country, means sacrificing your own freedom, money, and well-being to help the government in its efforts to run other people's lives.
Thus, Kennedy assumed that individuals either must make others their involuntary servants or make themselves servants to others. The answer of free men and women should be, "We chose neither." It is not morally proper to serve nor to be served but, rather, to deal with one's fellows based on mutual consent, for this is the way a free society works. A merchant and customer both act out of rational self-interest. One doesn't lose and the other win. The merchant wants money, the customer wants a good or service. They trade. Both get what they value most.
None of which is to deny that a free society needs genuine public service nor that there are solid, self-interested reasons for engaging in public service. But such public service is based on a philosophy of personal responsibility, not sacrifice.
Sometimes, for example, we join in a community project that benefits us directly. When settlers in early America found it necessary to have a road connecting their homes to the nearest town, it was in the self-interest of each person to pitch in to help build the road themselves rather than waiting around for the government to do it.
A more realistic and important form of public service today is to join in creating a free polity. We need to secure the kind of community of values in which we can flourish. We can shoulder this responsibility by participating in Neighborhood Watch programs, voting for pro-freedom candidates, or working for pro-freedom campaigns and causes. We can speak out on issues at town meetings and in letters to the editor, and we can give money to pro-freedom organizations.
Some pro-freedom advocates seem to resent the necessity of protecting their rights. After all, they say, if one has a right to free speech, property ownership, and the like, one should not have to fight with politicians in order to exercise the right. But this is unrealistic, for individual rights are not protected by magic. To be sure, in a society with a morally sound infrastructure, we would need to devote less time to politics because our neighbors would have little desire to interfere with our lives. But the reality is that there are no guarantees—especially today—that others will respect our freedom.
Each must recognize, then, that if he does not take personal responsibility for preserving our freedom, as a self-interested citizen should, then his freedom will continue to perish. But questions of "how much" are necessarily up to the individual. Each person must judge for himself how much time and effort to devote to his responsibilities as a citizen. There are no hard and fast rules.
Likewise, it is a very personal decision to decide what one should do in the realm of public service, and the federal government's attempt to channel public service into pre-determined pathways is not the least of the Bush program's flaws. Bridgeland argues that the Freedom Corps merely offers ways for individuals to pursue "the good life." So might some socialist economic czar argue that government industry simply offered people the opportunity to lead the productive life. But an individual's happiness and well-being are particular to that individual, based on many particular values, beliefs, and experiences. If for years I've been fascinated by the stars, have read books about them, have studied mathematics and physics so I might be able to better understand their origin, I could not pursue "the good life" by putting aside a career as an astronomer and taking a government job working with drug addicts. Likewise, if I am a lawyer who believes that I can best serve my country by pro bono work that challenges bureaucratic regulations, I could not pursue "the good life" by volunteering to work in a government-run soup kitchen.
The Argument from Ethics
As just noted, advocates of community service quote various philosophers in opposition to individualism; Bridgeland seems to be particularly fond of Aristotle and Cicero. Some columnists (for example, Maureen Dowd) have scoffed at this attempt to give Bush's program an intellectual pedigree. But it is no laughing matter. In fact, it is precisely this that makes the Bush program far more worrisome than mere welfarism.
Previously, the federal government has enforced sacrifice, for example, through taxes. It has been satisfied to take the wealth and restrict the freedom of citizens in the name of altruism, arguing that society—specifically, those who create wealth—owe a living to others—specifically, those who do not produce it. Citizens themselves, however, were free to believe such arguments or not, and many understood the moral flaws of the argument and the system that was based on it.
By contrast, the community-service initiative is not (immediately) intended to enforce altruism but to inculcate it. That is, the government is now attempting to change people's philosophy and moral habits, to undermine the ethos of free men and women, to brainwash Americans so that they will willingly place the interests of others before their own interests, thus making free citizens into subjects.
But how can this be, when the administration cites such high-minded philosophers as Aristotle and Cicero? Didn't they make important contributions to the natural-law tradition that helped produce American constitutionalism?
Yes, they did. In their own time, Aristotle and Cicero represented advances in moral and political thought. Nonetheless, they lived before the Enlightenment and the full discovery of man's moral and political right to live as an individual. For us, who live after the Enlightenment, a return to the classical world's semi-collectivist conception of society would be as great a step backward as returning to the astronomy of Ptolemy, though that too in its day represented a tremendous advance.
The correct ideal for the American people, or any people, is the ethical and political individualism that found its best expression during the eighteenth century. This is the view that each individual's life and happiness should be his highest value. Individuals should tend first to their own moral character and habits, cultivating the virtues of rationality, honesty, self-discipline, productivity, and the like. They should acquire the skills necessary to make a living, then find the spiritual means to a fulfilling life in things they value: work, family, friends and acquaintances, recreation, hobbies, and art. The first moral question is not, "How should I treat my fellows?" but, rather, "How can I live the happiest life possible?" To achieve these moral ends, individuals must be free, and the purpose of government is to protect this freedom.
Because America was founded in the eighteenth century, these are the principles on which America was based and which still, to a degree, constitute the American spirit. Consequently, they are the principles that explain the generosity of 9/11, the nation's often-remarked spirit of volunteerism, and the nation's long tradition of public service. Sadly, they are the principles that will be undermined by the administration's proposals for public service.
How will it happen? The first step in inculcating an altruist perspective will be to push the assumption that pursuing one's self-interest means "taking from" the community. Of course, that is a complete misunderstanding of what production and trade mean in a free-market system, where theft by force or fraud is forbidden. Under those circumstances, each individual can prosper only by creating some good or service that can then be traded with others. All the people and resources employed in the process of production and trade are duly compensated and paid for by the individual. Nothing is "taken." And thus there is no basis for the assertion that those who earn their wealth must "give back" to the community.
Nevertheless, precisely that will be said and the attempt will be made to instill guilt in those who don't "give back." The Left in America has been doing this for decades, propounding the Marxian thesis that individuals become prosperous only at the expense of those who remain poor. More recently, the Left has put forward an egalitarian thesis (often based on John Rawls's Theory of Justice) and declared that no one has a right to more wealth than anyone else unless that inequality serves those who have less. Will George Bush declare: "We are all Rawlsians now"?
Over time, these arguments and programs will inculcate new moral habits in the population. First, citizens will be taught that serving others' needs is morally superior to pursuing personal values, that serving others represents one's "better self." Secondly, people will be taught that it is not their place to decide what form their benevolence should take. Such decisions will be handed to them in the form of social demands and government programs. Lastly, people will be taught to feel guilty when engaged in purely personal pursuits and pleasures. How can you spend a day at the beach or an afternoon at the movies when other people are starving? And who says you can discharge your obligations with 4,000 hours of servitude? Why not make "social heroes" of those who give 8,000 hours, or 12,000 hours? Perhaps the government will have higher tax rates for those who volunteer only 4,000 hours and lower rates for "real heroes" who "give back" more. Anyone who has watched the exploding budgets of the Great Society programs knows how the process works.
In the end, those who take this ethos seriously will become servile and will neither be nor feel they have the right to be free individuals. Those who do not take it seriously will become cynical. Maryland led the march to servitude with mandates that took effect in the 1993-94 school year, and students there now must complete seventy-five hours of service in order to graduate high school. Already, we find some Maryland teachers apologizing to their students for forcing this requirement on them. And many of those students, who rightly see the requirement as a silly waste of time, dream up clever ways to get around it.
To see the perverse effect such a mandate of forced "service" can spawn, we need only look abroad, to Guatemala. As a means of dealing with its high illiteracy rate, that country requires students to teach five other people to read in order to graduate from high school. The problem is that literate students tend to be better off and live in safe urban areas, while illiterates tend to be impoverished and live in dangerous or distant rural areas. Thus, according to a resident of Guatemala, a market has developed in which supposedly illiterate individuals charge would-be high school graduates for the privilege of teaching them to read. Whether these individuals are actually illiterate or simply rent themselves out time after time to instructors is not examined very closely. Consequently, rather than teaching literacy, the requirement teaches cynicism.
From Argument to Inducement to Mandate
It would be bad enough if the Bush administration were trying to inculcate the altruist spirit by argument alone. But the many states that make public service part of the high-school curriculum show that it will not stop there. It will evolve as an ever-tighter noose around the necks of citizens, and what is ostensibly "voluntary" will become more and more mandatory.
To begin with, we should note that taxpayers' dollars already go to these so-called voluntary government programs. But taxpayers did not "volunteer" the money, the way citizens might voluntarily give money to a private charity. Taxes are mandatory, and they deprive citizens of resources they may need to deal with their own lives. For example, the government's oppressive levels of taxation already make it difficult for families to pay for their children's college tuition. The government responds to the crisis it has created with a government program, such as AmeriCorps. This allows kids to ransom back some of their parents' money by doing several years of service to the state. Bush's initiatives, which will require more money, will expand both the extractions in taxes and the opportunities for earning back those extractions, by requiring that half of all Federal Work Study funds be devoted to paying students for service.
As a next step, people will be prevented from meeting "public-service" requirements in an egoistic way. The parents of students in the Chapel Hill School District in North Carolina and the Rye Neck High School in Mamaroneck, New York, have sued in part because the service requirements took time away from part-time paid work performed by students after school to help the financial fortunes of their families. Unfortunately, lower courts upheld the mandates. Helping one's parents is evidently too selfish.
But the anti-egoists have gone further. Consider the "Kids Sew for Kids" project. Sixth-to-eighth graders in Maryland can satisfy part of their requirement over a four-week period by making clothes by hand for poor children. Why by hand? In an advanced industrial society, factories can turn out clothes in a fraction of the time it takes students to make them and for a fraction of the cost. If the object is to teach philanthropy, why not have the students work at something they enjoy doing, save the money, and devote part of it to buying clothes for poor kids? The answer, obviously, is that such a process would represent the capitalist form of benevolence, under which charity is incidental to one's work and one does not serve the poor directly as though they were one's masters.
But the anti-egoists have gone further still. In North Carolina, a boy was not allowed to count as community service work he had performed as a Boy Scout—simply because he received a merit badge for the work, a form of payment that in the eyes of school bureaucrats soiled the purity of selfless service. In short, public-service programs will be allowed to operate only according to the collectivists' beliefs as to who is morally worthy of being assisted and how.
Now, given that Leftists generally believe their views represent "the public good," as opposed to the "selfish interests" of the Right, can we doubt that "public-service" programs will soon encompass political Leftism? In Maryland, for example, literature for possible service projects include "Adopt a Wetland" and "Stream Restoration." Some students in Maryland were allowed to demonstrate at the statehouse in Annapolis for higher teacher pay, and others worked for the gubernatorial campaign of Governor Parris Glendening and Lieutenant Governor Kathleen Kennedy Townsend. Indeed, in promotional literature for the service program, political activism is considered the highest form of service. But just try working for a tobacco-company lobby.
The next step toward mandatory programs may well be taken under the influence of egalitarianism. "Shirkers" will not be allowed to escape unscathed. For example, the Third Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that high-school students were not being forced to supply their labor. After all, the court argued, they had the option of not graduating. Thus will the government hold a bruising blackjack over the heads of any dissenters. If parents are not well-off enough to pay to have their kids educated privately, the kids' alternative to public service is to forgo a diploma and to give up the opportunity for a college education and the many jobs that require a high-school education. As parents lose power over how their children should be educated, bureaucrats will gain power, and the service requirements that condition the many to be servile will develop in others the habits of petty tyrants. Already, in their theories, supporters of mandatory service show a truly arrogant disregard for their fellows, a lack of the basic respect owed by one citizen to another. When this lack of respect is practiced day in and day out by those who actually administer the programs, the results will be shocking.
Doubtless, there are already some at the political level who are not innocently motivated by mistaken benevolence but who wish to control free, unrestrained individuals. For them, the motivation is a false sense of self-esteem derived from being perceived by others as the saviors and benefactors of the poor and downtrodden—a sense of self-esteem purchased through the wealth and labor of others.
Whether well-meaning or not, the Bush administration's plans to encourage citizens to serve society are unworthy of a free society and make a mockery of the truly voluntary, benevolent actions based on the rational self-interest of the benefactors. The programs might not lead to devastating consequences overnight. But they will, like government welfare policies before them, act over time to erode the ethical infrastructure of a free society. They will act as slow poison in the body politic. The only antidote is a recognition that each of us has an unalienable right to his own life and happiness, and a personal responsibility not to let others control them.
This article was originally published in the June 2002 issue of Navigator magazine, The Atlas Society precursor to The New Individualist.