As the father of two young sons, I find fewer things more galling, nauseating, and mildly nightmare-inducing than politicians hectoring or cajoling ordinary American citizens to listen to the grand call of "national service," to serve a cause greater than one's self. As Republican presidential candidate Sen. John McCain has put it, "The richest men and women possess nothing of real value if their lives have no greater object than themselves." Which often (though certainly not always) means suiting up to fight a stupid elective war or, far less gruesome but still frustrating, putting an upper-middle-class career on ice for a coupla-three years while punching the clock at a public-sector sinecure of dubious policy effectiveness.
That's why last Thursday's "Service Nation Presidential Candidates Forum," at which "Obama, McCain Set Aside Politics, Call on Americans for Public Service," left me alternately vomitous and sleepless. It's never a good sign when politicians "set aside politics." When elected officials go bipartisan, it's a sure sign that all voters are about to get rubber-hosed, and especially so when it's done so in the name of "public service." Public or national service is virtually always a euphemism for you and me to play a bit role in somebody else's grand drama. The only thing that varies is the invasiveness of the casting call.
I should explain: I owe my birth in this country partly due to the prescient draft-dodging of my forefathers. In the early 20th century, both of my grandfathers fled what gone-missing former Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld (speaking of a service-monger of the worst sort) called Old Europe, partly to avoid having to fight in World War I. (My Gillespie grandfather came from southern Ireland, then a colony of the U.K., and my maternal grandfather, Nicola Guida, came from outside of Naples, a region in Italy that had little to gain from that conflict.) To be sure, my grandfathers (and grandmothers for that matter) were also coming to America for very basic economic opportunities that were sorely lacking in Europe.
My father, who served in Western Europe during World War II and earned a Purple Heart among other honors, once told me that he'd break my legs or ship me to Canada before he'd let me serve in anything other than what he considered a totally necessary war. He was no pacifist and, as a fan of Franklin Roosevelt and a kid growing up during the Depression, he believed in community and helping those in need. Indeed, his early life had depended on such things, which were not necessarily synonmous with government bureaucracies. Like many men—boys, really—of his generation, my father first tried to volunteer for an elite force but was rejected due to the effects of various childhood ailments. He was later called up and served as an infantryman in the Army, landing at Normandy and working his way across the continent to Germany.
Of course, neither Sens. John McCain nor Barack Obama are calling for compulsory military service these days. Thanks in part to the intellectual arguments of Milton Friedman and other members of Richard Nixon's Gates Commission, the peacetime draft is a thing of the past. And thanks to Iraq, even a wartime draft is likely off the table for another generation or three. Nor are McCain and Obama demanding the semi-involuntary national service programs of the sort once touted by figures as ideologically varied as Sen. Bill Bradley (D-N.J.) and conservative icon William F. Buckley.
Rather, they are pushing programs that are tailor-made for college kids who are already volunteering in record numbers for just about everything. McCain, who once plumped for massively expanding AmeriCorps in the pages of the liberal Washington Monthly and presided over a national convention with the theme "Country First," and Obama share the same mind-set on the issue of heavily taxpayer-financed voluntarism. Indeed, both are Senate sponsors of the Serve America Act, which would drum up 175,000 participants in an AmeriCorps-style program through a big mix of incentives to employers, college students, and more. At last week's forum, as the AP reported, the two candidates were more in synch than not:
The expansion of government national service programs Obama has proposed would cost $3.5 billion a year, including a new "Green Vet Initiative," increasing the all-volunteer military, expanding AmeriCorps, doubling the size of the Peace Corps, expanding service programs involving retired people, and creating a tax credit making the first $4,000 of college tuition free for students who perform 100 hours of public service a year.
Asked about Obama's proposal, McCain said: "I'd be glad to spend money." But quickly added: "It doesn't always have to be run by the government."
It doesn't have to be run by the goverment, but McCain often tips that way, as he did in 2003 when he characterized the the denial of $100 million in emergency funding for AmeriCorps as "an attack on things we believe in." Indeed, it's difficult for the "authoritarian maverick" to separate out national interest from his own personal interests. The same apparently holds true for Obama, whose enthusiasm for the collective typically overrides his respect for the individual.
The silver lining in the discussion of national service? In a post-Vietnam era, the talk rarely turns to mandatory military duty (though at last week's forum, Obama did say, "If we are going into war, then all of us go, not just some"). In a globalizing economy, the generally ineffective idealism of the Peace Corps has been replaced by business-driven exchange that directly helps those in the developing world. The likely outcome of McCain and Obama's agreement on the need for national service is that, whoever wins the election, very little will happen on that score. American values of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness—and a flourishing charitable sector—tend to get in the way of top-down planners.