National Service

Obama Youth Corps?

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My least favorite parts of President Obama's inaugural address were the passages where he suggested that every individual has vaguely defined duties to the collective. When he said our immigrant ancestors "saw America as bigger than the sum of our individual ambitions, greater than all our differences of birth or wealth or faction," I could not really disagree at that level of abstraction, but I had a feeling he had more in mind that I did. When he said we honor America's soldiers "because they embody the spirit of service…precisely the spirit that must inhabit us all," I was a little more uneasy. And I was shaking my head at this part:

We have duties to ourselves, our nation and the world, duties that we do not grudgingly accept but rather seize gladly, firm in the knowledge that there is nothing so satisfying to the spirit, so defining of our character, than giving our all to a difficult task.

This is the price and the promise of citizenship.

One can think of ways to interpret this charge that are consistent with limited government and individual liberty. But it is much easier to think of ways in which such rhetoric invites the use of force to implement someone's grand ideas of collective responsibility and national purpose. Here, for example, is Southern Illinois University journalism professor William A. Babcock in Monday's Christian Science Monitor, reading Obama's "new era of responsibility" as an invitation to launch a "mandatory youth corps" in which every high school graduate would be compelled to participate for two years. Although members of the youth corps would only be paid minimum wage, "they would be provided with room and board" (just like in prison!) and get two years' college tuition afterward. As for their work, it would depend on whatever the "national need" happened to be at the time, but it might have something to do with "education, infrastructure repair and maintenance, construction, healthcare, the military, and the arts."

Babcock explains why America needs a mandatory youth corps:

The times call for legitimate regeneration, not a feel-good tweak, and a piecemeal, voluntary approach simply would not promote the sort of permanent cultural change the financially strapped 21st century increasingly demands. Rather, a mandatory youth corps rich with a variety of service options would benefit every participant and citizen alike, while at the same time helping to instill a permanent "service mind-set" throughout the nation—a gift of shared responsibility, as it were.

Evidently the idea of using the state to impose "permanent cultural change" (a cultural revolution, as it were), instill a "permanent service mind-set," and enforce "shared responsibility" gives some people a warm feeling. I will never really understand that, just as they will never understand why such rhetoric sends a chill down my spine. After all, this is the good kind of collectivism, not the creepy fascist/communist kind.

Although implementing his vision would be "a mammoth undertaking," Babcock says, "so are trillion-dollar financial bailouts." That's worse than a non sequitur. It's bad enough that the government is saddling our children and grandchildren with trillions of dollars of additional debt at the same time that the unpayable bills for Social Security and Medicare will be coming due. On top of that, if folks like Babcock have their way, it will also be forcing them into indentured servitude for two years so they can perform whatever sort of arbitrary make-work Babcockian bureaucrats think would be nice.

For his part, Obama says "middle and high school students should be expected to engage in community service for 50 hours annually during the school year or summer months," which sounds pretty mandatory but not nearly as daunting as the two years of "service" Babcock has in mind. Then again, Obama envisions "universal voluntary citizen service." I don't think I'm going on a limb by suggesting there's some tension between the first and second adjectives. If it turns out that a few Americans would rather not devote their time to teaching inner-city youth, digging ditches, or painting murals so they can fulfill their duties to the nation, which aspect of the plan do you think Obama is prepared to give up: the universality or the voluntariness?

Paul Thornton decried Obama's (and John McCain's) fondness for "national service" in the May issue of Reason. Other Reason coverage of the subject here and here.

[via The Freedom Files]