THERE she is, a sweet, but emotionally overcome young woman from the New Jersey Youth Corps, being consoled with a hug from the president of the United States. Onlookers in a flag-decked classroom beam at this latest exciting moment in the new political production, “The Selling of National Service.”
It is the kind of scene repeated in photo-opportunities nationally as the White House hustles its plan to have college loan recipients pay off Uncle Sam with government-approved service.
How can anyone argue against something like this? Why, just look at the cheering student crowds at Rutgers University in New Jersey where the president is announcing his plan!
If, as psychologist William James described it in 1907, National Service is “the moral equivalent of war,” shouldn’t we just rush right off and “enlist”?
The answer is decidedly “no.” The current National Service scheme is another attempt at appearance over substance – poorly conceived, poorly thought out, and, if experience is any kind of guide anymore, a potential major new waste of public money.
It is precisely because real service is such a vital part of American life that nationalizing it and distorting its moral content through government should be most strongly resisted. Service, as the Hebrews and Christians of the Bible taught, is something given freely.
That also was the view of the early Americans, as the French commentator, Alexis de Tocqueville, noted 160 years ago in his famous work, “Democracy in America.” “Where in France you would find the government or in England some territorial magnate (building hospitals, churches or libraries), in the United States you are sure to find an association.”
The consequence is a distinctly American tradition of committed, creative and effective community service. As figures from the Gallup Poll and the respected group Independent Sector show, in recent years Americans actually are giving more money and time to charities. And because they give it as they wish – not as they are directed by government – the voluntary service sector is more popular than either the profit sector of society or the government sector.
That, I believe, is what students and ordinary citizens cheer when they hear the word “service.” But National Service would be something else again. In practice, government changes the meaning of service when it orders it (remember “Selective Service,” the draft?) or when it makes it a paid job (think of “Civil Service,” the government bureaucracy).
There are exceptions, such as the 6,000-member Peace Corps, but such programs are invariably small and specialized and usually require sacrifice of comfort, money or safety.
De Tocqueville expressly warned against the government trying to take over the role of the voluntary sector. “Once it leaves the sphere of politics to launch out on this new track, it will, even without intending this, exercise an intolerable tyranny. For a government can only dictate precise rules. It imposes the sentiments and ideas which it favors, and it is never easy to tell the difference between its advice and its commands.”
The history of the present plan shows that such concern is still timely. The first modern proposal for National Service came from Defense Secretary Robert S. McNamara in 1966. McNamara’s perverse idea was to solve the obvious inequities of the draft by drafting everybody – some for the military, as usual, and the rest to empty bedpans in hospitals, remove trash from roadsides and tutor young children.
Fortunately, that coercive and utopian scheme died, the victim of its high projected economic and social costs. The better solution to the ills of the draft was found in an all-volunteer force, which works superbly.
But the National Service dream was revived in the 1980s by the Democratic Leadership Council. As President Clinton, a former chair of the DLC, said at Rutgers, “We made one of the central parts of our platform to reclaim a new majority of Americans for our party the establishment of a system of national service to help people to finance education.”
The new version of the idea was to make service voluntary and to link it to a new aim of making funds available, as Mr. Clinton said in the 1992 campaign, “to every American who wants to go to college.”
The post-election proposal is so much less that the term Sen. Slade Gorton used to describe it – “oversold” – seems an understatement. Only 1,000 summer positions will be available nationwide this year, 25,000 full-time National Service positions in 1994 and 100,000 in 1997.
Such a limited program can hardly do much damage or good (depending on your viewpoint) in terms of service or education. What it does accomplish is an increase in the deficit – $3.4 billion annually by 1997.
But the eventual aim, also, is to make the program very large and possibly universal, though the head of the program, Eli Segal, says that universality is not the goal “at this time.” As a leading National Service advocate, Michael Brown of City Year in Boston, declares, “Like Social Security, national service will be woven into the fabric of American Life.” Soon, he says, it will involve millions of youth and absorb private money as well as public. “Programs should seek not just tax dollars, but charitable contribution dollars directly from citizens at large, like the money people lovingly give to their church or college alma mater.”
In short, the government would go into competition with the independent voluntary sector not only for people’s time but also their money.
Praised by the president at Rutgers was Professor Benjamin Barber, one of the sponsors of a program at that state university which, at least initially, made administration-approved service mandatory for graduation. He is the advocate of what he (and Brown) call “strong democracy,” a coercive brand opposed to the mere representational democracy with which the American founders apparently burdened us.
At the moment, however, no one – including, evidently, the White House – can even explain the financial details of the National Service plan that was so dramatically unveiled by the president. The public numbers change almost daily. David Evans of the Chicago Tribune calls it “data free analysis and analysis-free policy making.”
But if we can trust the projections of the Democratic Leadership Council several years ago and the January 1993 report of the Congressionally mandated, bi-partisan Commission on National and Community Service, the National Service scheme will be wasteful.
The payout per volunteer during a year of service – government’s idea of a minimum salary, medical care and benefits – works out to $20,000 per year for each of two years. That, fellow taxpayers, is $40,000 for two years, on top of the cost of the forgiven college loan of $20,000, or $60,000 per student “helped”!
Plenty of taxpaying workers, many raising families, make $20,000 a year or less. Some do exactly the same kind of work the National Service volunteers will perform – for example, as hospital orderlies and teachers’ aides. The differences are they pay taxes instead of using tax revenues, don’t get glorified as “volunteers,” don’t get $20,000 of free college aid, and do have to worry that the wages of low-skill jobs in the economy will be bid down by the new supply of National Service workers.
Moreover, the $60,000 bill per student in National Service does not even include the indirect costs of government supervision, training and oversight, which, despite promises now, are sure to be high. Nor does it include what economists call the “opportunity costs” of thousands or millions of students holding off career paths for two more years.
Seen in this light, we do not have an education loan program, but an expensive jobs program, very like the CETA (Comprehensive Employment Training Act) program of the 1970s, which was discontinued after it became, with some exceptions, a source of waste, disillusionment and corruption.
This is hardly the time for dubious new spending programs, in any event. But if we are intent on further stimulating scholarship programs and voluntary service, the answer is not a new government jobs program but an increase in the tax deduction for charitable giving from 100 to 110 percent. This small, but psychologically potent incentive would open a gusher of new giving, allowing the existing voluntary sector – which, being decentralized and closely managed – can stretch dollars farther and create far more true service jobs than Washington, D.C., could ever imagine.
That, Mr. President, is really “the American way to change America.”
Bruce Chapman, a former director of the U.S. Census Bureau, is president of Discovery Institute in Seattle