National Service? Puh-lease

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Illustration for TIME by John Ritter

One of the comforts of middle age — a stage that the editor of TIME and I have both reached — is that you can start making demands on young people, safe in the knowledge that they won't apply to you. Having safely escaped the Vietnam era draft ourselves, we are overcome by the feeling that the next generation should not be so lucky. Many of these young folks are volunteering for socially beneficial work, and that's good. But it's not good enough. "Volunteerism" is so wonderful that every young person should have to do it.

Problem number one with grand schemes for universal voluntary public service is that they can't be both universal and voluntary. If everybody has to do it, then it's not voluntary, is it? And if it's truly up to the individual, then it won't be universal. What advocates of this sort of thing generally have in mind is using the pressures of social conformity and the powers of the state indirectly to remove as much freedom of choice as possible, while still being able to claim that everyone who signs up is a "volunteer."

More specifically, these plans aim to achieve near-universality with a couple of incentives. One is a general ethic of "volunteerism," enforced by peer pressure, corporate public service advertising campaigns, earnest reports from blue-ribbon commissions, speeches from politicians, covers of newsmagazines, goody-goody student-council types who infect every college campus, Oprah, Larry King, and so on. America is very good at marshalling all the forces of bullshit in our society toward a noble end, like stopping cruelty to animals or hounding sexual predators. Pressuring young people to "serve" for a year or two is a perfect subject for one of these campaigns.

A second incentive is to make college loans contingent on a year of service, or some such formula. That would snare all but the richest young folks. The hope would be that some fraction of those so ensnared will be inspired to dedicate their lives — or at least a part of their lives — to public service. And it's possible. But a larger fraction may regard the whole exercise somewhat cynically, and the very concept of "volunteerism" under this kind of pressure may turn the word into a joke. The exclusion of kids whose parents are wealthy enough to buy their way out — as young men could buy their way out of the Civil War — will do nothing to reduce such cynicism. And young people may ask why, for example, farmers are not required to "volunteer" for a year or two in exchange for the massive subsidies they enjoy. Or what about boomers like the editor of TIME, when they start collecting Social Security and Medicare in a few years? Why should they escape the maw of mandatory volunteerism?

As it happens, we already have a system for inducing truly voluntary activities that benefit the public. It's called free-market capitalism. It works this way: if you need something done, you offer enough money to induce someone to do it. There is no need for inspiration or other malarkey. In fact, the voluntary nature of transactions under capitalism is what gives our economic system its moral authority. And if the need that has to be satisfied is social — if satisfying it would benefit everybody or the worst-off among us who need help — we have another well established system called taxation. It works this way: through democratic processes, we decide as a society that something is worth doing or someone is worth helping. Then we tax ourselves in order to buy this service from someone who wishes to sell it for the amount we are willing to pay.

It is this second arrangement — democracy and taxation — that has broken down in our country today. People don't have faith that their votes get translated into governing arrangements that reflect the popular judgment about what the government should do and how it should be paid for. I would have to add that a generation of mainly Republican leadership has trashed the very idea of government. Much worse, politicians of both parties (though mainly, once again, Republicans, it seems to me) have made the voters totally unrealistic about any need to equate the taxes they pay with the services they want. What bothers advocates of "volunteer" schemes is the disappearance of a sense of obligation — obligation for the blessings we enjoy as Americans. And the lack of any sense of obligation makes it very hard to expand those blessings to include, for example, some kind of guaranteed health care. But obligations are not voluntary. And the most efficient and fairest way to satisfy them is cash on the barrelhead.

The writer Nicholas von Hoffman had a slogan during Vietnam: "draft old men's money, not young men's bodies." The military draft raises special issues. When "volunteerism" may involve paying the ultimate price, it is very tempting to say this really is something you should not be able to buy your way out of. The whole "volunteerism" crusade, in fact, starts with the discomfort people feel about how we fill our military. To some extent, this discomfort is misplaced. The armed services are more socially diverse today than during Vietnam or even Gulf War I — even including several children of national politicians. The discomfort also may be misguided: if the military has, by historical accident, turned into an important path out of the underclass and into bourgeois society, used disproportionately by African-Americans, is that necessarily a bad thing? (Especially when the lifetime risk of dying on the job may be no higher in the military than in other dangerous careers like coal mining.)

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