Education Opinion

National Service: ‘Idea Whose Time Will Never Come’

By Doug Bandow — May 30, 1990 8 min read

A program of national service has long been a dream of American philosophers and politicians. A century ago, for instance, Edward Bellamy’s novel Looking Backward advocated conscripting an “Industrial Army” of young men and women.

Today, policymakers of both parties are pushing a variety of national-service proposals. Although the sponsors’ motives are worthier than Bellamy’s-none seems enthused by the sort of totalitarianism he favored-even their “kinder, gentler” forms of national service would create more problems than they would solve. It is simply an idea whose time will never come.

An approach shared by several of the current proposals is to hand out money to private organizations. President Bush’s Points of Light Foundation, for example, would provide up to $50 million a year for promoting volunteer efforts. Broader in scope is a Democratic omnibus bill passed by the Senate in March, which authorizes $125 million annually for a variety of purposes, including Mr. Bush’s foundation and a “national demonstration project” offering education and housing vouchers for service.

Unfortunately, despite the good intentions behind these and similar plans, they would likely prove to be pork barrels, as so many other federal grant initiatives have. More important, when the philanthropic sector attracts more than $100 billion annually, is the question of whether any such program is needed. Without significant federal involvement, some 80 million Americans--roughly one-third of the population--currently give several hours a week to volunteer groups.

Proponents of national service express particular concern about getting students involved, but the young, too, are volunteering. In the University of California system alone, roughly 100,000 students participate in service programs. Nationally, more than one-third of all college students work in such projects, up from 20 percent in 1985. Several national organizations, such as the Campus Compact and the Campus Outreach Opportunity League, and numerous local groups are active.

Where the existing system is working so well, there is a danger that government checks would squelch individuals’ volunteer spirit and corrupt service groups, changing their focus from helping people to collecting federal funds.

Another important issue is the proper level of government responsibility. All of the current legislative initiatives focus on encouraging local efforts; why shouldn’t the localities fund as well as run such programs? The federal government, which ran a $152-billion deficit last year, certainly doesn’t have a lot of spare change. And 200 years of government have shown that programs are most likely to be run well if financing and accountability remain together.

A different approach underlies legislation proposed by Senator Barbara Mikulski, Democrat of Maryland. This plan, which would use the National Guard as a model, paying people $3,000 to volunteer on weekends, raises many of the same questions as do the grant schemes. Ms. Mikulski herself acknowledges that there is currently no end of opportunities for people to serve: “We already know how to use volunteers in public service and community projects ranging from the Boy Scouts to hospitals.” Why, then, does the government need to pay people to help? Ms. Mikulski’s legislation addresses the area of least need, even by the standards of national-service proponents, since 80 million people are already doing what she wants to subsidize.

Anyway, the government is far more likely to fund make-work than useful tasks. For instance, under the Reagan Administration’s short-lived Young Volunteers in Action initiative, some participants ended up working as gardeners’ helpers and envelope stuffers. And imagine the potential administrative mess: Who would ensure that participants showed up for their jobs? Would they be entitled to hearings before they could be laid off? And so on.

A third approach is the basis for the kinds of programs that most people think of as “national service.” The leading plan comes from the Democratic Leadership Council: A “corporation for national service” would administer a “citizens corps” involving an estimated 800,000 young people, as well as a few members over the age of 65.

Underlying this proposal is the elitist assumption that the body politic is failing and needs a federal program to set it straight. We live in a “prevailing climate of moral indolence,” where “such venerable civic virtues as duty and self-sacrifice and compassion toward one’s less fortunate neighbors are seldom invoked,” declares the D.L.C.

But the “citizens corps” would be unlikely to do much to enhance the nation’s service ethic. Like Ms. Mikulski’s, this program would pay for service in a land awash with volunteers, turning supposedly compassionate service into a job rewarded by a $100-a-week stipend, health insurance, and a $10,000 or $12,000 (untaxed) annual voucher for tuition or home purchase. The University of Rochester economist Walter Oi figures that this is the equivalent of $17,500 after taxes--perhaps not a great reward for someone bound for Harvard, but a definite improvement over pumping gas for a lower-middle-class youth just out of high school.

Thus, the program would seem to transform today’s admittedly obnoxious entitlement ethic-that college students are entitled to a taxpayer-subsidized education-into an even more obnoxious one--that they are entitled to a taxpayer-subsidized education if they perform certain government-approved tasks. Moreover, in practice, this obligation would apply only to lower-income youths, those who are most reliant on federal subsidies for postsecondary schooling. The obvious solution to young people’s wrongly believing that life is full of benefits and no responsibilities is to eliminate the unjust perquisites, such as a subsidized college education, not impose a peculiar new duty on poor kids.

In addition, the D.L.C.'S program is designed to fill only jobs that are not worth paying for. The legislation dictates that the corps not displace any current worker, impair “existing contracts for services or collective bargaining agreements,” nor result in “any infringement of the opportunities of any currently employed individual for promotion.” What work, then, would corps members perform? (Sponsors anticipate 800,000 participants, but roughly 3.5 million people turn 18 every year, and all would be eligible to serve two years.)

National-service proponents argue that there is an enormous number of “unmet social needs” that can be satisfied only through some form of government-supported service. But as long as human wants are unlimited, the real number of unfilled social “needs,” as well as unmet business “needs,” is infinite. Unfortunately, labor is not a free resource, which means that most such “needs” are not economical to meet.

What does the council suggest as duties? Working with the terminally ill, helping in day-care centers, building playgrounds, and handling police paperwork. Do these kinds of activities justify a massive new federal program? Representative William Ford, Democrat of Michigan, warns that the program is “an approach reminiscent of Stalinist industrialization in the 1930’s: Throw legions of untrained and inexperienced young amateurs at the problem.”

Particularly important in this context is the concept of what economists call “opportunity cost” -that paying young people to sweep floors entails a cost of forgoing whatever else they could do with their time. An additional young person’s finishing school and entering the field of biogenetics might increase social welfare more than one more youth’s shelving books in a library. Yet the D.L.C.'s plan would delay for a year or two the move of hundreds of thousands or millions of people annually into college and the work force. Some might not continue their education as a result.

Even if national service made sense theoretically, the bureaucracy required to administer a system potentially involving millions of young people would threaten the viability of the very local volunteer groups that are supposed to help carry out the program. The problem is not just placing bureaucratic deadwood in charge of local operations that are intended to assist needy people; an equally serious difficulty would be the politicization of the entire process.

Advocates argue that national service would improve the All-Volunteer Force. But the military is recruiting youths who are smarter and better educated than the general population of young people. And with the services destined to shrink in the post-Cold War era, they will soon have their pick of recruits.

Our nation would benefit from a renewed commitment to civic service, and, in fact, we can already see the movement of “little platoons,” as Charles Murray of the Manhattan Institute describes them, across American society. A variety of important ties links us to one another, bonds that deserve to be fostered and strengthened. But these most significant parts of our lives, though “public” in an important sense, are not properly within the realm of government.

Despite the best efforts of President Bush and of policymakers and philosophers with varying perspectives, government- sponsored national service, if elective, would likely duplicate private efforts, stifle existing organizations, and waste money. If mandatory, it would subvert the compassionate impulses that animate true volunteerism and violate the principles of what is supposed to be a free society. What we need is more individual service, not a program of government service.

A version of this article appeared in the May 30, 1990 edition of Education Week