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National Service Promise Should be Broken

To the growing list of promises that President Clinton has set aside as the reality of governing obtrudes on the inaugural galas, he should add that dreamy but expensive campaign vision, “National Service.”
The idea, whose father was military conscription and whose mother was the Depression-era Civilian Conservation Corps, was incubated in the Progressive Policy Institute in the ’80s, placed in the foster care of the Democratic Leadership Council and then adopted by the Clinton campaign.

It is a favorite of the new “communitarian” movement, which apparently seeks to provide balance to the benefits the government would heap upon the people by heaping up new responsibilities that the people will owe the government.

Though the plan was fairly specific in its intellectual inception – with budgets spelled out, for example, in the Democratic Leadership Council version – the Clinton campaign’s use of it was reduced to a generality invoked at Democratic rallies.

The “Clinton-Gore Plan” for education put out by the campaign headquarters in Little Rock included only this simple pledge:

“Maintain the Pell Grant program but scrap the existing student-loan program and establish a National Service Trust Fund to guarantee every American who wants a college education the means to obtain one. Those who borrow from the fund will pay it back either as a small percentage of their income over time, or through community service as teachers, law-enforcement officers, health-care workers or peer counselors helping kids stay off drugs and in school.”

Inspected, however, this dream breaks up. There is less and less reason to believe that providing government funds for “every American who wants a college education” should be a high-priority objective in a society where, for the first time, many people in the unemployment lines possess college diplomas, and where many poorly prepared youth who nonetheless secure low-cost college opportunities soon drop out because they cannot perform the work.

National Service advocates also err conceptually when they imagine that the ideal of true “service,” as our Judeo-Christian tradition understands it, can best be inculcated through government-financed paid positions. If so, the CETA jobs program of the 1970s – a notorious source of “waste, fraud, and abuse” if there ever was one – should have made us holy indeed.

Would taxpayers really think they were getting a bargain by paying for students’ college loans and then paying again to hire these same people in government-financed jobs? Would workers now in health care and education jobs be happy to see the cheeky new government-paid “volunteers” arrive, eliminate private-sector growth in low-skill jobs and drive down the private-pay scale? Would the volunteers really serve society best in such artificial, temporary posts, expending tax revenues, or by getting on with their own careers and contributing to tax revenues?

What, also, about the Americans who in growing numbers donate their time and money to private charity – people who believe civic virtue comes, as de Tocqueville held, from private associations rather than, as the followers of Rousseau hold, from actions of the state? Will the numbers of private volunteers continue to grow when the government gets into the business of creating new government workers and calling them “volunteers”?

Meanwhile, what is to prevent colleges and universities from responding to the new infusion of federal aid by raising overall tuition rates, thereby defeating the efforts of the hapless new volunteers and further burdening students who choose not to join National Service?

There is one other, much higher, obstacle to a full-blown National Service scheme, and that is the federal deficit.

Are the new president’s protestations of concern for fiscal responsibility (and shrinking the number of federal employees) sincere? If so, a National Service program is just too expensive.

The original National Service scheme foresaw up to $21,000 being made available per student in “loans.” Settling this debt could be accomplished by having the student pay it back or take a publicly financed National Service job for two years.

These jobs would provide a “subsistence living,” (but tax-free and with full health-care coverage) plus a $10,000-a-year payback of the college loan, with an overall annual salary value of at least $16,000 – or $32,000 for the two years of “service.” (Millions of Americans work for less.)

In other words, we would pay large numbers of students to go to college and then pay them again at government-funded jobs for two years, at a cost of at least $53,000 each! These estimates are based on a proposal now five years old. The cost of the proposal then was some $13 billion; it certainly would be higher today. And those are only the direct costs.

Regardless of what one thinks of the National Service, it is doubtful the new administration could redeem this campaign promise and still maintain credibility in backing its far more consequential promises to reduce government bureaucracy and lower the federal deficit.

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Bruce Chapman is a former director of the U.S. Census Bureau. This article was written for The Washington Post.

Bruce Chapman

Cofounder and Chairman of the Board of Discovery Institute
Bruce Chapman has had a long career in American politics and public policy at the city, state, national, and international levels. Elected to the Seattle City Council and as Washington State's Secretary of State, he also served in several leadership posts in the Reagan administration, including ambassador. In 1991, he founded the public policy think tank Discovery Institute, where he currently serves as Chairman of the Board and director of the Chapman Center on Citizen Leadership.