Gratitude: Reflections on What We Owe to Our Country, by William F. Buckley, Jr., New York: Random House, 192 pages, $16.95
Led by the usual suspects, advocates of national service have been extraordinarily active during the last two years. In 1988, Charles Moskos of Northwestern University wrote a book, A Call to Civic Service, detailing a new, voluntary plan to replace his earlier, mandatory proposals. The persistent Donald Eberly has co-edited a new book with Michael Sherraden, The Moral Equivalent of War?, reviewing other countries' national service programs and calling for a voluntary U.S. program open to all adults.
And a bevy of conservative Democrats, such as Sens. Charles Robb of Virginia, Sam Nunn of Georgia, and Rep. David McCurdy of Oklahoma, introduced a Moskos-inspired proposal for a multibillion-dollar effort. A number of their colleagues came up with other ways to spend millions or billions of dollars on conservation corps, demonstration projects, and the like. Republican Sen. John McCain of Arizona pushed the only mandatory plan of the lot, receiving substantial silent support.
Before adjourning in October, Congress approved a three-year, $187-million Christmas-tree bill that will spend a little money on each strategy and ensure that everyone will be back pushing for more cash next time. But the real social engineers—Moskos and his lawmaking friends—were disappointed, since all their efforts had led to was the usual passel of pork. They remain genuinely committed to a Plan, a Program, one that they believe will really Make a Difference.
And so, too, it seems, is William F. Buckley, Jr.
Buckley, the founder of National Review, has a libertarian streak; he supports legalization of drugs, for instance. But he is a patrician rather than a populist and therefore retains a sense a noblesse oblige. And that means every one should serve.
Indeed, this is not a new idea for Buckley. In 1973 he included it in his book Four Reforms, but his program then was entirely private and voluntary, "enforced" by the top 10 private colleges, which would consider only those applicants who had performed a year of national service. Alas, he complains, "the private sector has not shown itself disposed to take action to launch national service."
Yes, he acknowledges, there has been support for individual volunteer projects. But "voluntary social action hasn't sufficed." So "enter the state, with its large inventory of sanctions." And thus the new Buckley program, which, though not formally compulsory, would combine financial rewards with withdrawal of subsidies like educational loans as well as such "privileges" as a driver's license and perhaps the right to obtain a high school diploma.
What makes Gratitude a challenge is the author and not the book, a thin volume relying heavily on the writings of others, particularly Moskos's A Call to Civic Service and Richard Danzig and Peter Szanton's National Service: What Would It Mean? Although one can joke abstractly about there being so little difference between conservatives and liberals, one still does not naturally think of William F. Buckley joining Margaret Mead, William James, Harry Truman, and Robert McNamara in pushing perhaps the hoariest of collectivist nostrums.
Buckley's argument is a simple one. We all owe something to our country. He explains: "We are accustomed to hearing it said that criminals ought to repay their 'debt' to society. The term of obligation is used too narrowly. Those who do not murder, rape, or steal also owe a debt to their society, if only because it pauses to distinguish between those who rape, murder, and steal and those who do not. Call it, broadly, a debt to civilization; more distinctly, a debt to the 'fatherland'—the nation-state into which we were born, or to which we repaired."
Unfortunately, Buckley is confusing "gratitude," the title of his book, with obligation. We ought to be grateful that we live in a society that distinguishes between those who murder and those who don't. But the fact that it makes those distinctions does not mean we are in its debt, that we are somehow receiving undeserved benefits. To the contrary, people are all "endowed by their creator," in the words of the Declaration of Independence, with "certain unalienable rights," including "life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness." The very purpose of government is to secure these rights. Thus, we should be grateful when it acts to fulfill its responsibilities. But we do not owe it a year of our lives because it has done so.
Of course, many of us believe that we have a moral responsibility to help others who are less fortunate. But even that is not payment of a debt, but rather a voluntary expression of God's love, for instance. It certainly is not something owed to the state. Nevertheless, Buckley argues that national service would strengthen the "connections between the individual and the community beyond those that relate either to the state or to the marketplace."
Buckley echoes the left when he implies that believers in individual liberty think the world starts and stops at the marketplace. Rather, they support a free society in which people may—and, in fact, do—interact with each other for noneconomic as well as economic reasons. The idea of the marketplace is not that everything must be a pure financial transaction equating marginal cost and marginal benefit, but that everyone is free to pursue his economic and any other interest. Indeed, widespread voluntarism today helps strengthen the connection between individual and community about which Buckley is worried.
But Buckley believes that personal choice has not worked, and he wants to "shape the national ethos." Encouraging people to be more humane, giving, and compassionate is certainly a laudable goal. Will national service reshape attitudes in this way, however? Given the widespread cynicism toward politics today, one has to wonder about the effect of a system whereby leaders in Washington continued to live a life of privilege while demanding that young people prove their right to be called, in Buckley's words, "Citizen, First Class."
Still, Buckley argues that the experience of helping others, even if not entirely voluntary, would ennoble the participants. "Republican citizenship incites every man to be a knight," he writes. The benefits of working with the elderly or elementary students or whomever will transform individual lives. And, incidentally, such service will fulfill all sorts of important social needs, resting "on the proposition that there is surplus human energy—i.e., energy not needed for subsistence—that ought to be channeled to social needs whose spokesmen cannot successfully plead their case in the marketplace."
Alas, Buckley's aggregation of a mass of different individual experiences into one mass experience is deeply flawed. First, he relies on essentially meaningless estimates of millions of important tasks that need to be done. The health-care field could use 715,500 people, he writes. Actually, it could use 1.4 million, or 2.1 million, or as many people as nursing homes and hospitals could fit in their hallways, since there is always something to be done if the price is low enough. There's simply no way to know how many of these tasks are worth doing without relying on prices to allocate scarce resources; hence the marketplace test.
Second, not all jobs are equal in their benefit, either to the participant or to society. Working in a museum will not provide the same sort of emotional experience as working with AIDS patients. Filling out police paperwork is unlikely to be as ennobling as helping with the home care of someone who has Alzheimer's disease. Voluntarism works today precisely because it is both voluntary and decentralized, with individuals and organizations trying to fill the jobs that are most worthwhile to both participants and the less fortunate. To create a national program to transform a few of the people who currently lack much charitable impulse is as dubious a scheme of social engineering as conjured up by anyone on the left.
Buckley says he has detected only "two sea changes in national attitudes" during his lifetime—environmentalism and racial tolerance. He hopes his national service program would promote a third. Yet even without implementation of his plan, the 1980s have seen a dramatic increase in voluntarism, including efforts by the much-maligned yuppies, who have been searching for meaning in their lives beyond fat bank accounts. And those of us who believe in service can not only encourage these trends through books like Gratitude—and Buckley's plea in this regard is a powerful one—but also lead by example.
Contributing Editor Doug Bandow is a senior fellow at the Cato Institute and the author of The Politics of Plunder: Misgovernment in Washington (Transaction Books).
This article originally appeared in print under the headline "I.O.U.S.?".