Barack Obama

Serve a Cause Greater Than Yourself on the Taxpayer's Dime

Both McCain and Obama want to beef up "public service." Bad idea.


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.

Nick Gillespie is the editor in chief of and


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  1. I’ve often wondered what a typical work day for an Americorps “volunteer” consists of. Anything the government has to say about it I cynically discount as worthless self serving tripe.

  2. I never cease to be amazed at the extent to which older people, who were young themselves once, love to try and force young people to “do something productive”, yet would have freaked out at being told to do so when they were young.

  3. Given the volume of the howl of outrage a few weeks ago when the university presidents suggested that we treat adults like adults, I think we can pretty much expect that either of these men will, as president, implement some kind of a “Years 18-21, You’re our bitch” program.

    And the boomers will all pat themselves on the back. Fucking boomers.

  4. Old folks love the thought of young people getting paid the minimum wage to do something boring and unpleasant. Back in the day, a friend of mine did this sort of thing, cleaning poison ivy out of a national park. After a hard day of ripping out the stuff, the kids would gather around a campfire, drink wine, smoke pot, and sing dirty songs. Later, naturally, they’d crawl into their sleeping bags and fuck their brains out. Not a bad government program, actually.

  5. $4,000 for 100 hours “volunteer” work is more than I’m making now. Where do I sign up?

  6. If the delicious irony of having either a former POW or the first Black president (re)instituting involuntary servitude (or as like to think of it: Voluntary Hopification) comes to pass, I would ask for one little adjustment – reverse the age.

    Set it up so that each individual, between the ages of 40 and 65, would have to give up two years to pick up garbage, fight foriegners and teach gangbangers — OR no medicare and social security (all funds previously ‘contributed’ shall be confiscated for the glorious Republic).

  7. I thought McCain was a big fan of Reagan?
    Reagan said in 1979 that such national service (military draft in particular) “rests on the assumption that your kids belong to the state. That assumption isn’t a new one.
    The Nazis thought it was a great idea.”

  8. After a hard day of ripping out the stuff, the kids would gather around a campfire, drink wine, smoke pot, and sing dirty songs. Later, naturally, they’d crawl into their sleeping bags and fuck their brains out.

    This is the 1,000,000th story I’ve heard about the fun shenanigans on these forestry programs. I knew people who did the same thing either planting trees, working on trails, etc. If they paid even a little above the minimum wage, you wouldn’t need a gov’t program to get kids to sign up. It beats flipping burgers.

  9. “Both McCain and Obama, writes Nick Gillespie, want to beef up “public service” and enlist Americans to serve in a cause greater than themselves”

    There is no such thing as “public service” in the first place.

    Just as similar phrases such as “the common good”, “public service” is merely a propaganda tactic invoked by those who want to use it as a cover for imposing their personal preferences on others.

  10. Oh God, please let this election cycle be a horrible, horrible nightmare. I prefer my tyranny ugly and oppressive so it’s easier to justify hostility towards it. Nothing angers me off more than bi-partisanship because it almost always results in this kind of saccharine, militant altruism and “feel-good tyranny.”

  11. This is the 1,000,000th story I’ve heard about the fun shenanigans on these forestry programs

    It’s not just forestry programs. Didn’t you ever attend camp or become a counselor? Oh ho ho boy.

  12. I would just like to add that I prefer my sex and booze without the obligation of community service. That’s why I live in America. Sex and booze and not helping the poor.

  13. I am the proud holder of number 335 in the first Vietnam era draft lottery held in December 1969, which allowed me to escape involuntary servitude without relocating to Toronto. As an aging baby boomer, I am appalled when anyone of my generation even suggests the possibility of compulsory national service. And the thought of federally subsidizing voluntarism is as oxymoronic as Hillary voters who have fallen for Gov. Wasilla GODzilla. While this libertarian Democrat likes to believe that my guy Obama can be educated away from the Progressive Era focus on “improving society,” I am certain it would take a first-rate cult de-programmer to move John McCain away from his cause-greater-than-self obsession–and the cause for him is always some war, somewhere, all the time.

  14. I should explain: I owe my birth in this country partly due to the prescient draft-dodging of my forefathers.

    Dito. My Russian ancestors left for America, because they didn’t like the Tsar’s expansion to the South and East.

  15. I guess some people picture bold, caring leaders when they hear “serve a cause greater than yourself” from a politician.

    I picture the scene in Lord of the Rings when Galadriel is tempted by the power of the ring, the camera goes to negative, her voice is lowered and multiplied and she says something like “All will bow down and serve my power and beauty.”

    Maybe it would help Americans understand the real issues if at least one of the networks would film the debates in negative and alter the voices of the candidates …

  16. It’s not just forestry programs. Didn’t you ever attend camp or become a counselor?

    A valid point. I went to a Christian summer camp (my friend’s mom wanted to save our souls), where my friends and I were the bad girls of camp and had our pick of the guys. Sadly, there was no booze or weed, but there was sex. And water skiing. Good times. And no “service” needed.

  17. All will bow down and serve my power and beauty

    I had no problem with that campaign plank. Liv Tyler – yum!

  18. Nick Gillespie wrote:

    “Public or national service is virtually always a euphemism for you and me to play a bit role in somebody else’s grand drama.”

    A Fing MEN! This is the truth!

    This smarmy rhetoric rings so hollow at this point, I can’t believe it still works! The only reason state politicians and bureaucrats get away with this nonsense is because it plays out like a smooth ‘made for TV’ drama. AAAAArrrrrGH!

  19. Both McCain and Obama, writes Nick Gillespie, want to beef up “public service” and enlist Americans to serve in a cause greater than themselves

    Nonsense. Neither McCain nor Obama can even imagine a cause greater than themselves.

  20. Yeah, the rest of the sentence (“You should serve a cause greater than yourself”) goes:


  21. left me alternately vomitous and sleepless

    As most people learn freshman year of college, if your vomiting while asleep, make sure you’re lying on your side.

  22. “I should explain: I owe my birth in this country partly due to the prescient draft-dodging of my forefathers”

    Same here. Great-grandfather got out of Vilinius to avoid the czar’s army.

  23. Neither McCain nor Obama can even imagine a cause greater than themselves.

    And… we have a winner.

  24. Just to play devil’s advocate, it would be interesting to see what effect a two-year involutary tour of the underside of government programs would have on a generation of teenagers.


  25. R C Dean:

    Actually it was Cate Blanchett; but I’d serve her beauty…wink-wink, nudge nudge….

  26. I think I’m about the only regular reader of Reason Magazine that’s also a Peace Corps volunteer. Nick, your description of what the Peace Corps does is just flat-out wrong. I was a business development worker; I helped small businesses in a small, now Russian occupied, country develop marketing strategies, business plans, and secure funding/financing from private lenders. Frankly, it was a career development move for me, in addition to the ‘service’ aspect. I’m a licensed securities principal, and I was working at an excellent job when I decided to keep the dream of living and working abroad alive. There’s a lot to be said for ‘mid-career’ volunteering (to be fair, I don’t consider the Peace Corps to be volunteer service; my living expenses (about US$185/month) were paid for by your largess) were paid for by someone else’s sweat and labor. At the same time, however, the effective, ground-level, ‘this is what an American is’ is so effective at dispelling stereotypes of who Americans are and why we do what we do.

    A lot of these programs are what you make out of them, of course; and certainly, there is waste. But I don’t see why programs that effecting change, for the better, need to be quite so demonized.

    And, for the record, I proudly consider myself to NOT be a dirty hippy…

  27. I watched the event…

    I got a laugh each time one of the moderators mentioned that “civil service”, or volunteerism, is at an all time high.

    In other words, volunteerism is doing just fine and doesn’t really need more government involvement.

    But let’s spend two hours talking about it anyway with the two leading candidates for President. Whatever.

    Also, I find it disgusting when politically connected & wealthy adults tell young people they should work for free… wanting to pay the volunteer org’s administration with the kids or their parents tax dollars… it seems simple enough on the surface, but there is something nefarious about that.

    Volunteerism and donations to volunteer organizations should be, well, voluntary.

    Government doesn’t need to be involved whether it’s the evil of “compulsory service” or some agency’s redistribution scheme.

  28. Actually it was Cate Blanchett; but I’d serve her beauty…wink-wink, nudge nudge….

    -4 on my nerd power. Blast it.

  29. Nick,

    Let’s assume that, like your father, you aren’t a pacifist, but would be against any war that wasn’t justified and necessary.

    So, if we ever face a war that is justified and necessary, wouldn’t you, like Obama, expect that “If we are going into war, then all of us go, not just some”? I would expect some sort of draft to be instrumental in ensuring that.

    And wouldn’t a draft that made sure every family and social class had a life at stake help to ensure that a conflict is necessary? Would we have gone into Iraq if Congress if it meant instituting a draft?

  30. What a sad commentary. The me generation is obviously well represented by this blog.

    Yeah…go ahead, ride on the backs of others who have honor and decency. Selfish pricks.

  31. Good editorial! Watching that forum last week, I got a sickening feeling in the pit of my stomach as the spector of fascism seemed to hover over the proceedings.

    Nazi Germany also believed in the people being mobilized for the good of the community- the organic conception of society being a fundamental precept of fascist thought.

    As I listened to both candidates I realized how far we have come from our founding- a country built on the individual and his rights and freedoms has devolved into Rousseau’s group society in which the collective will and well being is paramount. How sad and scary!

  32. Selfish pricks.


    I can be nasty too.

  33. National service is government serice is antithical to the founding philosophy of this great nation.
    Voluntary is always been a important faucet of democracy.
    With that in mind, everyone should menatlly and spiritually volunter for the ….
    It is your constitutional duty as an American.

  34. What a worthless punk!

  35. It appears the nihilistic little apple didn’t fall far from the cowardly little tree that bore it.

    War is an ugly thing but not the ugliest of things; the decayed and degraded state of moral and patriotic feelings which thinks that nothing is worth war is much worse. A man who has nothing for which he is willing to fight, nothing which is more important than his own personal safety, is a miserable creature and has no chance of being free unless made and kept so by the exertions of better men than himself.
    – John Stuart Mill

  36. David S,

    Keep in mind we’re not bashing individual volunteers – or at least I’m not – but criticizing any attempt by politicians to interfere with choices people make or to mandate service.

    That said, how can anyone who is supposedly selfish – selfish people who are also employed, or investors, or business owners, or charitable, and taxpayers, etc. – “ride on the backs” of others?

    It seems the people who advocate compulsory service… or the wealthy politicians who tell young people to volunteer and sacrifice… fits your description much better since they’re the ones telling people to work for free.

    I have nothing against giving. But I should be free to choose who I give to rather than a politician making that decision for me… or worse, politicians forcing me to “sacrifice”.

  37. Somehow this has been turned into a debate on military service and the supposedly heroic virtue of combat.

    What’s missing in Scottie’s and “John Stuart Mills” argument above is a Just War Theory.

    Some wars – in fact, probably most in recent history – are unnecessary and the peak of moral corruption. I have a moral right not to kill or die for that.

    For example, my personal safety does mean a lot more to me than sacrificing for W’s little misadventure in the desert.

    However, if someone is trying to kill me in my home I’m obviously going to fight back and defend myself.

    If John Stuart Mill were alive today and thought of me as a “miserable creature” for that philosophy then I would tell him to kiss my ass and go to Iraq his fucking self if he’s so morally superior.

  38. Legate Damar,

    I second that, and I AM a Baby Boomer. I was born in 1961, and I’ve been following along behind these self-absorbed boobs all my life.

    As for “bipartisan”, the definition of that word is “any measure or policy sufficiently idiotic to attract support from both parties.”

  39. ” Make the choice to serve in a cause larger than your wants, larger than yourself.” Guess who and where this quote is from.

    G.W. Bush in his inaugural address. Yeah, the guy who dodged Viet Nam and went AWOL from the National Guard. The same guy who took our country from budget surplus to record deficit and debt. The guy who ended our long nightmare of peace and prosperity.

    And McCain is plagiarizing from Dubya, using his speech writer. It’s like one dumb student copying from another dumb student. What more proof does one need that McCain is the the same? Four more years of bologna. “Straight talk express,” my ass. Double-talk express.

  40. The fact that this article ends with a call for businesses to be the socially responsible entities in society completely negates any type of “point” it might have been trying to make. The government exists to regulate business as well as the market and to protect its citizens. Why do you think the government exists if you think that businesses will play nanny?

  41. Problems arise when you try to mix personal responsibility and the moral obligation to sacrifice. Just look at Romney’s failed healthcare plan in Mass. He defined 30,000 as needy, but 100,000 signed up.

    After all, if it’s moral to give, it’s moral to receive, and the immorality of that is it contradicts and dismantles the concept of personal responsibility altogether.

    In defense of altruism it’s important to remember that when you share with others you receive ten fold in return……………providing you share with someone who has ten times more stuff then you.

    Altruism is greed in it’s most elemental form.

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