Universal national service for Americans 18-28 is the goal of the most prestigious gathering of the Establishment so far this year, an invitation-only “Summit” presently taking place at the Aspen Institute in Colorado (June 24-25). Two hundred of the shiniest names in philanthropy, government, business, and media -- including a sprinkling of Republican notables -- will be there to make a year of national service “a common expectation…for all young people.”
In the midst of rising public distrust of government and, especially, distrust of the Obama Administration, Administration backers and their allies are launching yet another plan for major expansion of government and Washington’s control over people’s lives.
The old Selective Service System -- the draft--broke down in the early 1970s and was replaced by the all-volunteer military, which overall has been a great success. Even forty some years ago the proponents of national service wanted to replace the old Selective Service (a kind of lottery in the end) with a draft for everyone, male and female, used for a variety of purposes besides the military. Now, according to Aspen’s official Summit description, it appears that backers are willing to settle for something less, but still vast: a new “National Service System that will offer at least one million full-time civilian national service opportunities…on par with the more than one million Americans who serve on active duty in our Armed Forces.”
Compulsion is not very popular in peacetime, so the obligation to “volunteer,” according to Aspen leader Gen. Stanley McChrystal (Ret.), only will be “socially mandatory,” the way many high schools and colleges these days require performance of “service” in order to graduate.
I put the word “volunteer” in quotes here because “mandatory” service, however it is constructed, is only considered voluntary by Orwellians. Real voluntary service is a touchstone of our culture, but this is something else and almost contradictory, a kind of social engineering by the federal government. One distinction is the incentive of money. The new corps -- some greatly expanded combination of existing government agencies -- will be “modestly paid.” As a reward for a year’s service, participants would receive something over $12,500 (the AmeriCorps rate today for 11 months) and $5,000, one understands, to help reduce college loans.
The taxpayers, who have so little else to do with their money anymore, will foot the bill. To the salaries and scholarship rewards you can add training costs, certain housing, food, and transportation expenses, insurance and government overhead. There will be many jobs for new bureaucrats to operate the program. You are looking at $30,000 per “volunteer,” at least -- or a new program of $30 billion (30k X 1million). That’s only for starters.
But that is what the Summit's sponsors and participants –such as JPMorgan Chase, Target stores, Bank of America, State Farm Insurance, Burson-Marsteller public relations, the Case Foundation, Bruce Reed (Vice President Biden’s Chief of Staff), other Obama Administration officials, Chelsea Clinton, Barbara Bush (GWB’s daughter), Maria Shriver, Arianna Huffington, the CEOs of PBS and the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, such media stars as Michael Gerson and E. J. Dionne of the Washington Post, former-advisor-to-everyone David Gergen, and a high end assortment of editors, college presidents, progressive theologians, and trade association and think tank nabobs -- apparently want the public to sign up for.
The Summit was called not so much to consider and weigh such a scheme as to mobilize in support of it. If there were any critics of universal national service invited to Aspen, the invitation list doesn’t show them.
With seemingly endless liberal foundation support, proponents never have to give up. Some of the same people, such as former Sen. Harris Wofford of Pennsylvania, are still at it after all this time.
Over the years, just as the scheme has shrunk in nominal ambition the justifications also have changed. Whereas universal national service once was proposed as an alternative to a military draft, in 2002 at the Brookings Institution it was suggested as a way to provide “homeland security” post-9/11. One can expect opportunistic advertisements out of Aspen for national service as a means to solve today’s youth unemployment problem and the burden of student loans, not to mention whatever-ails-you.
This is the typical liberal cop-out. If foundations and big corporations wanted to promote volunteering, they already could donate more of their own resources. Instead they want to leverage their money to lobby the government to fund an arena of formerly private and truly voluntary activity. Of course, it always has been the intention of statists to get the central government to tell young people what to do with their lives.
I have been an opponent of universal national service for nearly a half century. Some of my earliest allies were Milton Friedman, Martin Anderson, Donald Rumsfeld and Bob Bartley. We all saw that to the extent universal national service is idealistic it is misconceived. From an economic standpoint, it is a wasteful tax on time. Socially speaking, it is a disguised welfare program. Politically it is a way to supply workers for government-favored organizations.
It is, finally, a way to defer adulthood even further.
Does anyone think you can further grow the government’s role in “service” without shrinking the independent, Tocquevillian sector? Do you think you can discourage the growing attacks on intellectual and political diversity in America by having the government pick favored activities and then subsidize them with mandatory volunteers?
This is an especially maladroit proposal for our cash-strapped times. But think about the White House involvement and the power of the foundations, businesses, and individuals that are advocating the Aspen plan -- and their tenacity. You have to be impressed. Such nice people. Wouldn’t it be grand if they put their weight behind totally private initiatives for service?