Aspen Ideas Festival 2013: It's Not Uncle Sam's Job to Make You Serve

At the inaugural 21st Century National Service Summit this week, leaders from various sectors including business, education, politics, and the military converged in Aspen, Colorado to propose a national service. The service will be optional, but expected. Purportedly, by sharing a common experience in either civil or military service, young people will gain a sense of gratitude and magnanimity currently lacking in society. The call for this service should be rejected, however, because it is rooted in a spirit antithetical to our country’s founding principles and would undermine the very sense of community it strives to cultivate.

The summit’s moderator, Arianna Huffington, described the national service as a bipartisan issue. Citizens would fill nursing, teaching, disaster relief, park restoration, and infrastructure repair roles, among others, while working on large-scale issues. People from all types of backgrounds are committed to improving our country and understand that strong communities are important. However, coveted across-the-aisle support does not necessarily indicate good public policy and this policy consistently misses the forest for the trees. 

Huffington says that this idea is “at the heart of the founding of the country itself, connected to the very pursuit of happiness in the Declaration of Independence.” According to John Bridgeland, the former director of the White House Domestic Policy Council under President George W. Bush and one of the movement’s leaders, the happiness that Thomas Jefferson enshrined was the public happiness, not some “personal, momentary pleasure fueled by a culture of material goods.”

This might seem to suggest that the interest of the group trumps the interests of the individual. But what is “public happiness” and how can society achieve it? As Nobel laureate Milton Friedman wrote in Capitalism and Freedom,  “To the free man, the country is the collection of individuals who compose it, not something over and above them.” Jefferson and the Founding Fathers constructed our government under the premise of individual freedom, which is why the Declaration said all men have the right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. As free people, we get to define our own happiness and the means to which we choose to achieve it.

We have the right to pursue a big house and flashy car. Maybe even two of each — but happiness still does not come under warranty. We may encounter failure or success, but we have the right to live our lives as we see fit, provided we do not infringe upon the rights of others to do the same.

Interestingly, the writings of the French historian Alexis de Tocqueville have been used to suggest that national collective action can help us avoid the creep towards individual isolationism. Yet through Tocqueville’s keen insights, we can see what truly made early 19th century American culture and society so robust.

The number and variety of associations stunned him. Whereas bureaucrats and aristocrats in France and England largely organized society, Americans acted through voluntary cooperation. In a democratic society with fewer powerful players, acting through associations was crucial for Americans to accomplish their many individual goals. According to Tocqueville, “The morality and intelligence of a democratic people would risk no fewer dangers than its business and its industry if the government came to take the place of associations everywhere.” Social engineering do-gooders miss that government programs and central planning crowd out many voluntary associations and can in fact weaken our ability and desire to help each other.

Organizations such as the Peace Corps, City Year, and Teach for America are great. They attract talented and passionate individuals to work on tough issues and help those in need. The groups no doubt instill a sense of camaraderie amongst members and perhaps even a mutual appreciation between the servers and the served. But it would be a mistake to think that this relationship would hold for a much broader national service.

A national-service program , even if voluntary, would create an attitude of obligation and expectation. People choosing not to participate in nationwide endeavors will be held in contempt as being selfish and unpatriotic. Fortunately, we do not regard the Mark Zuckerbergs and Steve Jobs of the world as such, though they both opted out of “conventional” societal paths to pursue their dreams and on their own time frames. They have surely contributed much more to society through their ventures than they would have as homebuilders.

The national-service plan should therefore be rejected on the grounds of both principle and practice. An obligatory national service cannot create a sense of national pride grounded in a respect for individual rights and brotherly compassion, just as compelling an atheist to attend church through peer pressure cannot make that person pious. By scaling back overreaching social and economic government programs, perhaps we can avoid the need for coerced "compassion," and restore the voluntary associations that garnered Tocqueville's admiration of America.