Jonah Goldberg

There's a weird irony at work when Sen. Barack Obama, the black presidential candidate who will allegedly scrub the stain of racism from the nation, vows to run afoul of the constitutional amendment that abolished slavery.

For those who don't remember, the 13th Amendment says: "Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for crime ... shall exist within the United States."

In Obama's mind it must be a crime to be born or to attend college.

In his speech on national service last week at the University of Colorado, Obama promised that as president he would "set a goal for all American middle and high school students to perform 50 hours of service a year, and for all college students to perform 100 hours of service a year."

He would see that these goals are met by, among other things, attaching strings to federal education dollars. If you don't make kids report for duty, he's essentially telling schools and college kids, you'll lose money you can't afford to lose. In short, he'll make service compulsory by merely compelling schools to make it compulsory.

When the right seeks to use government to impose its values, the left screams about brainwashing and propaganda. When the left tries it, the right thunders about social engineering. But when left and right agree - as seems to be the case on national service - who's left to complain? As ever, the slipperiest slopes are greased with the snake oil of "bipartisanship."

After all, Obama's hardly alone. Sen. John McCain is a passionate supporter of Washington-led (and paid-for) "volunteerism," as is President Bush. Sen. Christopher Dodd (D-Conn.) and John Edwards both campaigned for the presidency on compulsory national service.

Perhaps thanks to the JFK cult, which sees the refrain "Ask not what your country can do for you ..." as an all-purpose writ for social meddling, even the idealistic hipster crowd is on board. Devotees of Rolling Stone and MTV, who normally preen over their alleged libertarianism when the issue is sex, drugs and rock 'n' roll, see nothing wrong with involuntary servitude - as long as we call it "voluntary."

Volunteerism is good. But why does every good thing need to be orchestrated by government? Most people think churchgoing is a good thing. Does that mean government should fund churches? That's what they do in Europe and - surprise! - most pews sit empty.

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.


Jonah Goldberg

Jonah Goldberg is editor-at-large of National Review Online,and the author of the forthcoming book The Tyranny of Clichés. You can reach him via Twitter @JonahNRO.
 
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