You gotta serve somebody

Touting his national service plan before a group of college students recently, John Kerry intoned: “this election is not just about what we’re going to do, it’s about what you’re going to do.” That formulation’s a little less eloquent and a little more threatening than Kerry’s idol, the other JFK’s “…ask what you can do for your country,” but such are the times.

What can you do for your country, in Kerry’s view? Join a dramatically expanded AmeriCorps. Kerry’s “Compact with the Next Generation” seeks “the largest increase in domestic national service in our history,” ballooning the program from 75,000 to half a million Americans in national service each year within a decade. Those who sign up for two years will get the equivalent of four years of tuition at a public university.

And Kerry won’t leave old folks out either: He plans to create a “Retired, Not Tired” program that will give senior citizens a $2,000 a year education voucher if they work 10 hours a week helping the infirm or tutoring the young. If Kerry has his way, in the springtime and the autumn of our years, we’ll be serving each other on the taxpayer’s dime.

The notion of service to country through service to the state has had enduring appeal on both sides of the political spectrum. In 1906 philosopher William James called for community service that would be “the moral equivalent of war,” inculcating the martial virtues in young people conscripted to work at “dishwashing, clotheswashing, and windowwashing, to road-building and tunnel-making, to foundries and stoke-holes, and to the frames of skyscrapers….”

Even conservative doyen William F. Buckley Jr. has endorsed one version of the idea in a 1990 book called Gratitude: Reflections on What We Owe Our Country. As Buckley told Mother Jones magazine in 1996: “We need a national corporate commitment to public service to look after [the aged]. We aren’t able to provide the resources unless the young pay something for their patrimony through public service. I sound like a goddamned socialist!”

National service proposals have become even more popular in the post-9/11 era. Taking a cue perhaps from Kerry’s “Retired, Not Tired” proposal, the Progressive Policy Institute recently released its plan to recruit the retiring Me Generation into a “Boomer Corps” (their term) that would care for older, ailing retirees.

As the New Democrat think tank sees it, the Boomer Corps program “will help usher in a system in which younger retirees across the country serve the needs of older community members. Then, as this younger group ages, it will be served by the new class of recent retirees that takes their place in these civic programs.”

The prospect of spending your last months on earth serenaded by an aging hippie to the tune of “Teach Your Children Well” might make even the hardiest members of the Greatest Generation long for the sweet release of death. But perhaps Gen X’ers, every two of whom will be carrying one tie-dyed retiree on our backs in the decades to come, could use someone to help out around the house as we work overtime for enough to live on after federal withholding.

Sen. John McCain’s vision for national service is somewhat closer to James’s “moral equivalent of war.” In October 2001 McCain called for a quasi-militarized domestic national service corps as a way to address a “spiritual crisis in our national culture.” What Senator McCain envisions is, well, rather creepy–a sort of jackbooted Politics of Meaning.

McCain praises City Year, an AmeriCorps initiative operating in 13 cities: “City Year members wear uniforms, work in teams, learn public speaking skills, and gather together for daily calisthenics, often in highly public places such as in front of city hall.” He also endorses the National Civilian Community Corps, “a service program consciously structured along military lines,” in which enrollees “not only wear uniforms and work in teams… but actually live together in barracks on former military bases.” McCain calls for expanding these two initiatives and “spread[ing] their group-cohesion techniques to other AmeriCorps programs.”

“Group cohesion” and calisthenics in front of city hall reflect a version of patriotism, to be sure, albeit one that seems more North Korean than American. But perhaps we can take heart in McCain’s grudging admission that “it is not currently politically practicable to revive the draft.”

Or perhaps not. Recently, Senator Chuck Hagel (R -Neb.) suggested a draft might be needed to help out in Iraq and prepare the military for future wars: “Where’s that manpower going to come from?” Hagel asked. “What about a draft? What about mandatory national service in some way?”

Bills to revive the draft–ended in 1973–have been introduced in the House by Rep. Charles Rangel (D.-N.Y.) and Sen. Fritz Hollings (D.-S.C.). It’s not hard to see a left-right coalition emerging in the future to support universal mandatory national service–whether in the military or at home.

That would be a tragedy–and an outrage. The Roe v. Wade supporters carrying placards reading “my body, my choice” at the D.C. “March for Women’s Lives” earlier this year may have been wrong in their application of principle, but surely not in the principle itself. The nationwide outpouring of gratitude for Pat Tillman–the NFL star KIA’ed in Afghanistan, who gave up a multimillion dollar contract for $18,000 a year as an Army Ranger–gives the lie to the notion that Americans need to be dragooned into service.

Our volunteer military is peerless–and more than up to the task of fighting the rag-tag, stateless irregulars that make up al Qaeda and its affiliates. If more soldiers are needed to clean up the mess in Iraq, we ought to shift them out of obsolete Cold War-era deployments like Germany and South Korea. And we’d do well to honor our soldiers’ service by not risking their lives in nation-building campaigns in the future.

As for Kerry and McCain’s proposals for a latter-day WPA at home, they’re based on a conception of service at odds with the broader American tradition of voluntarism. Americans help each other out in myriad ways everyday without expecting a government paycheck or the seal of approval from a newly minted bureaucracy. But when Americans perform charitable works outside the state, it’s awfully hard for politicians to take credit for their service.

Gene Healy is an attorney and blogs for Brainwash. This article originally appeared in the The American Spectator.

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