Americans are vastly more generous with their time and money than Europeans. According to social demographer Arthur C. Brooks, in 1995 (the last year international data on giving was available), Americans gave 3 1/2 times more money to charities and causes than the French, seven times more than Germans and 14 times more than Italians.
In 1998, Americans volunteered 21 percent more than the Swiss and 32 percent more than Germans - two countries with compulsory national service. Yet we're told we should emulate them so that America, too, can have a "culture of service."
But we already have a healthier culture of service without - as Obama would do - doubling the size of the Peace Corps or pushing another 250,000 into AmeriCorps.
Indeed, there's ample evidence that countries with intrusive, expensive welfare states stifle citizens' spirit of charity and volunteerism precisely because people conclude that government should solve every problem. Merely paying your taxes substitutes for charity, and cleaning up litter for two years absolves you from doing anything more.
Time magazine's Richard Stengel speaks for many who insist that American government must consecrate everything. "The reason private volunteerism is so high is precisely that confidence in our public institutions is so low," he wrote last year in praise of universal national service. "People see volunteering not as a form of public service but as an antidote for it."
Really? I'd have thought the world's most charitable and voluntaristic nation might see volunteering as a good in and of itself.
This is the problem with national service mania: It seeks to fix what ain't broke. No, national service isn't slavery. But it contributes to a slave mentality, at odds with American tradition. It assumes that work not done for the government isn't really for the "common good."
"The central conservative truth is that it is culture, not politics, that determines the success of a society," Daniel Patrick Moynihan famously observed. "The central liberal truth is that politics can change a culture and save it from itself."
Moynihan was right, of course. But politics can change a culture for the worse, too. Indoctrinating an entire generation with the idea that public service is something you do at the government's behest would not only steamroll the culture, it would help fewer people in the process.