When Alexis de Toqueville traveled through the United States in 1831 to observe American penal institutions, he wrote down his observations of American political and civil society. Four years later he published Democracy in America, one of the defining texts of early American history. He titled Section 2, Chapter 5, "Of the Use Which the Americans Make of Public Associations in Civil Life." In it, he marveled that Americans "of all ages, all conditions, and all dispositions constantly form associations. They have not only commercial and manufacturing companies, in which all take part, but associations of a thousand other kinds, religious, moral, serious, futile, general or restricted, enormous or diminutive. The Americans make associations to give entertainments, to found seminaries, to build inns, to construct churches, to diffuse books, to send missionaries to the antipodes; in this manner they found hospitals, prisons, and schools." This came as quite a shock to the young 19th-Century French aristocrat, and de Toqueville freely admitted his prior ignorance of such associations. Europe, by this time, had lost much of the religious, cultural and civic vigor which had sustained it and enabled it to expand in the 15th to 18th Centuries. America, by contrast, had dynamic communities anxious to help others, improve their standard of living, and exert a powerful influence on government policy. He noted, "I have often admired the extreme skill with which the inhabitants of the United States succeed in proposing a common object for the exertions of a great many men and in inducing them voluntarily to pursue it."
I mention de Toqueville's analysis of 19th-Century American society to remind readers that from the beginning of our history, Americans have actively and spontaneously engaged in civic and political life by forming voluntary associations. The emphasis is on the voluntary aspect of these organizations and their intention to affect change in government. While all levels of government might have encouraged civic participation, the Federal Government did not create and fund its own voluntary societies, let alone micromanage them. To do so would have had the reverse effect of the original intention of voluntary associations - it would have allowed politicians a unique means of manipulating public policy for their own agenda, ideological or otherwise.
How far we have come! This week the House of Representatives is scheduled to vote on H.R. 2857, the Generations Invigorating Volunteerism and Education Act, more creatively known as the GIVE Act. If passed and signed into law, the bill would revise and reauthorize appropriations for numerous community service programs through Fiscal Year 2012. Among the revisions to some of the programs is the addition of four "purposes" to the National and Community Service Act of 1990. These include "providing year-round opportunities in service-learning; involving citizens in emergency and disaster preparedness, relief, and recovery; increasing service opportunities for retiring professionals; and encouraging service by Baby Boomers and continued service by national service alumni." Yes, you read that correctly. Congress is now in the business of specifically encouraging community service by Baby Boomers and national service alumni. Perhaps our elected leaders think Baby Boomers are too selfish and national service alumni too short-sighted to serve or continuing serving. Perhaps these groups need Congress to lend them a helping hand and show them how to serve. Who knew this was one of the obligations and enumerated powers of Congress under the Constitution?
The bill goes on to authorize hundreds of millions of dollars for various service programs, including the usual emphasis on reaching out to Indian tribes, "disadvantaged youth," "underserved communities" and two particular minority groups. In other words, the groups Congress has a habit of over-serving, creating within these communities an unhealthy dependency upon government handouts as a stimulus for civic, educational, cultural and economic improvement.
Has American civic life grown so stale and people so isolated that there is no longer any initiative among American citizens to volunteer of their own accord without relying upon federal tax dollars and handouts for support? I doubt it. What we now have are a bunch of over-active, over-reaching politicians and bureaucrats who no longer trust the American people to manage their finances, their lives and their communities on their own. Volunteering was important to American life and it remains important today. As citizens we have an obligation to help those less fortunate in our communities, including those in prison, those in foster care, those from severely impoverished families, rural and urban, and those who have served our country in war and have suffered while doing so. Our communities will only be as strong as the weakest among us. That said, H.R. 2857 if enacted into law would be a waste of taxpayer dollars.