Washington: Service with a Smell


It has long been the view of some that the young in America are selfish and need to be prodded into helping their neighbors. Earlier this century, philosopher William James advocated drafting the nation's "gilded youth" to do such important tasks as "dishwashing, clothes-washing and window-washing" in what he called the "moral equivalent of war."

That desire to make others "serve" has never disappeared. Three general approaches to heartland America's supposed selfishness are now circulating in the nation's capital. The least ambitious is George Bush's Youth Engaged in Service (YES) initiative. It would create a foundation to pass out $100 million in grants to local service efforts. Strategy number two is Sen. Barbara Mikulski's (D–Md.) proposal to give $3,000 to those, old and young alike, who spend two weekends a month and two weeks in the summer doing good deeds.

The third and most serious initiative comes from the Democratic Leadership Council, including Sens. Charles Robb (Va.) and Sam Nunn (Ga.) and Rep. David McCurdy (Okla.). It would create a "Citizens Corps" and condition federal educational benefits on one or two years of civilian or military service. One of the first bills introduced in the new Congress was the DLC scheme, and its advocates have been hitting the Washington media circuit, generally playing to rave reviews.

All three plans represent solutions in search of a problem. But with the president and a host of influential Democratic legislators pushing for one or another variant of service, there is a good chance that Congress will enact something.

The YES program is perhaps the silliest, duplicating the efforts of existing programs such as the Student Community Service Project and the Office of Project Demonstration and Development. And without such federal meddling, more than one-third of college students already participate in social-service projects, up from 20 percent in 1985. Such efforts are worthwhile precisely because they are voluntary, arising spontaneously to meet the needs of the community. Passing out federal checks would be the quickest way to squelch individuals' volunteer spirit and corrupt service groups, changing their focus from helping people to collecting government funds.

The Mikulski program, modeled after the National Guard, suffers from the same problem. Mikulski would turn charitable work into a de facto job. And nothing would prevent the government from funding valueless make-work. Under the Reagan administration's short-lived Young Volunteers in Action, some participants ended up working as gardeners' helpers and envelope stuffers. Groups benefiting from the Mikulski plan's free labor would likely assign participants to do the tasks previously left undone because no one felt they were worth doing.

Finally, imagine the administrative mess. Who would ensure that everyone shows up and does the job? Could the local service group fire volunteers who performed poorly? Would participants be guaranteed a hearing before they could be laid off and lose their $3,000? And so on.

The problems with the Bush and Mikulski plans pale, however, in comparison to the flaws in the DLC program. It, like the others, would pay for service in a land already awash with volunteers. And even more than Mikulski, the DLCers would turn supposedly compassionate service into just another job, rewarded by $100 a week, health insurance, a $10,000 annual voucher for tuition or home purchase, and "such other assistance as the Corporation considers necessary and appropriate."

In this way, the program would transform today's obnoxious entitlement ethic—that college students are entitled to a taxpayer-subsidized education—into an even more insidious one: that they are entitled to a taxpayer-subsidized education if they perform government-approved tasks. The obvious solution to letting young people wrongly believe that life offers benefits with no responsibilities would be to eliminate the unjust benefits.

The program is also explicitly designed to fill only jobs not worth doing. The legislation requires the Citizen Corps to ensure that none of its members displace any current worker or impair "existing contracts for services or collective bargaining agreements."

Anyway, the government has never found many useful tasks for social-service workers. The number of VISTA workers peaked at 5,000 in 1980. Between 1965 and 1970, the United States classified 170,000 people as conscientious objectors, but only about half of them were assigned to "service" jobs. The Depression-era works programs employed millions but largely to build roads and such, not to "do good."

With roughly 3.5 million people turning 18 every year—all of whom would be eligible to serve two years—the Citizen Corps could draw millions of participants. What does the DLC suggest? Working with the terminally ill, helping day-care centers, building playgrounds, handling police paperwork, and installing smoke detectors in the homes of senior citizens—activities that hardly justify a massive new federal program.

The bureaucracy required to administer a system involving so many young people would squash the local volunteer groups that are supposed to help carry out the program. There would be a Corporation for National Service, which would determine "appropriate" service for members of the Citizens Corps and then monitor participants. The legislation would require state governments to establish "a national service plan." National service councils—composed of community groups, local government officials, business people, school representatives, and labor unions—would prepare their own plans and oversee their implementation.

The plan's proponents estimate that it would cost about $13.6 billion, $8.3 billion of which would come from educational subsidies to be phased out. But if the number of participants was not the estimated 800,000 but, say, 2 million, the expense would be far higher. And the DLC initiative would not actually eliminate student loans. It would simply make them unavailable to anyone who hadn't participated in the Citizen Corps. People could perform their service, collect their $10,000 annual voucher, and then apply for Pell Grants, guaranteed student loans, work-study jobs, and other subsidies. The supposed $8.3-billion savings is likely to be largely illusory.

Finally, the DLC program is supposed to help "save" the All-Volunteer Force by encouraging the enlistment of two-year "citizen soldiers," who would collect a $24,000 voucher to make up for their reduced pay. But the AVF is already recruiting young people who are smarter and better-educated than the general youth population. And the easiest way to make the military more attractive to young people would be simply to kill student-aid programs, so that the only federal educational benefits were offered by the military.

Indeed, creating federal civilian service is likely to draw people away from the military. "We don't want high-caliber people who might otherwise join the Army off planting trees instead," says Thomas Byrne of the private Association of the U.S. Army.

Moreover, an influx of short-term "citizen soldiers" would reduce the experience and skill levels of the armed forces by increasing turnover, which would hike training costs and require added reenlistment incentives to maintain an adequate-size career force. A Pentagon report last fall estimated that a DLC-style program could increase military costs by several billion dollars annually.

There is yet another reason to oppose the DLC plan: it is but a stalking horse for a mandatory system. "If I could have a magic wand, I would be for a compulsory system," Charles Moskos, author of A Call to Service and the DLC's intellectual guru, told Time magazine last year.

McCurdy has backed the draft in the past. So has Nunn, who wrote a decade ago that mandatory service "for all youth…would ultimately be of great benefit to the nation." At a recent forum, Robb allowed as how he supported universal military training and would like to have a mandatory program but didn't believe it is currently possible.

Once again our leaders in Washington have looked out across America and found it wanting. And their solution is the enduring panacea of national service, which will supposedly make people compassionate, meet social needs, and enhance the nation's security. But we shouldn't be fooled by their kindlier, gentler rhetoric about what would in fact be the greatest social-engineering scheme in U.S. history.

Government-sponsored national service will either be elective, in which case it will duplicate private efforts, stifle existing organizations, and waste money. Or it will be mandatory and will subvert the compassionate impulses that animate true voluntarism and will violate the principles of what is supposed to be a free society. We need more individual service, not a program of government service.

Contributing Editor Doug Bandow is a senior fellow at the Cato Institute and author of Human Resources and Defense Manpower, forthcoming from National Defense University Press.