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Mandatory volunteerism

By Steven Martinovich

(January 21, 2002) If one can say that any good could has come from the events of September 11, that person could point to the renewed sense of patriotism and community that Americans have displayed. Tragedies, however, also bring out baser instincts as evidenced by some of America's lawmakers and pundits.

There is currently a push on Capitol Hill for an expansion of the AmeriCorps program, alternately derided and praised by Americans. Sens. John McCain, R-Ariz., and Evan Bayh, D-Ind. later this month will seek to have the six-year old program expanded from 250 000 participants to 500 000. More ominous, however, is a quieter push by some to institute mandatory national service, something that Americans haven't faced since the Vietnam War.

People like Robert Litan of the Brookings Institution have publicly stated that compulsory service for all American youth would act as an equalizing force, much in the same way that military service has done in the past. Litan points out that compulsory service merely follows on the recent trend by some school districts forcing high school students to perform volunteer work before they are allowed to graduate.

"Compulsory service brings together people from all walks of life during crucial formative years and puts them in a common environment, where they have no choice but to get along with each other," Litan writes in a recent issue of the Brookings Review. "It also helps instill a sense of obligation to the larger society."

I'm still close enough to today's youth only by the benefit of my age -- a tender 30 years -- to know how it feels to be described as the worst generation in history, a claim made of every generation going back to antiquity. Alexander the Great may have razed half of Asia as a young man but today's youth get knocked because they prefer to watch television. Times change.

Perceptions, however, do not. America's youth have always been perceived as lazy and shiftless, desperately in need of some iron in their spine. Force youth to perform some community service, experts say, and they will be transformed into disciplined members of society who will grow up equipped to lead the nation.

Although the idea of mandatory service might seem attractive for those reasons, the author of this piece had a minor role in planning out a similar -- but not compulsory -- program in Canada in the early 1990s, there is one good reason for Americans to oppose the concept, one that should have occurred to people pushing for it.

Freedom.

Back in 1967, novelist-philosopher Ayn Rand addressed one of the burning issues of the day and one directly related to mandatory service, the military draft, decrying it as no less than the worse statist violation of a person's right to life, comparing it to the similar forced service in the Soviet Union. It was no less than the defense of a free nation by a slave army.

"It negates man's fundamental right -- the right to life -- and establishes the fundamental principal that a man's life belongs to the state, and the state may claim it...," she wrote.

Proponents of mandatory service believe that living in a free society, such as the United States, means that you have an obligation to it. That assumes, however, that rights aren't inherent but granted by the state. She and I argue that the state only exists to protect the rights of a person and can't claim title over a person because of them.

Mandatory service, Rand would have surely argued, turns the natural order of America's freedoms upside down. Instead of protecting the right of the individual to live their life the way they see fit, the government instead imposes its beliefs on that individual and negates their rights. The government's only justifiable rationale for existence is to protect our rights.

Forcing them to serve in America's blighted areas is no better a rationale for compulsory service. As Rand pointed out, forcing youth to toil for the economic betterment of others when youth traditionally begin to firm their self-esteem, ambitions and their minds is nothing but altruism. Instead of sacrifice for a cause, it is sacrifice for sacrifice's sake.

Proponents of mandatory service are right on one count, forcing America's youth to perform community service could probably check some items off the national to-do list. Their ultimate goal, however, as Litan pointed out in his essay, is to address the moral fiber of today's youth. He and people like him believe that compulsory service would instill morality, but morality -- by its very nature -- is a voluntary code of conduct. Forced community service is not voluntary, it the imposition of the non-voluntary.

The utmost that force can do is to create an absurd counterfeit of morality, one not based on knowledge and rational judgment, but on mere brute fear and obedience, and even that fraudulent morality can last no longer than the force that imposed it. If participants place the slightest value on their own lives and freedom -- i.e., if they have the slightest beginnings of genuine morality -- then conscription will not even produce that sorry fraud: it will provoke even more malaise.

Thanks for reading,

Steven Martinovich

 




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