Adding his voice to the chorus of intellectuals and politicians who have pushed for a commitment by Americans to “national service,” Bush called on “every American to commit at least two years, four thousand hours over the rest of your lifetime, to the service of your neighbors and your nation.” Supplementing this call, he proposed a dramatic expansion of existing government service programs: a doubling of the Peace Corps–with an emphasis on expanding service to Islamic countries–and a quintupling of the AmeriCorps program, which sponsors volunteers for charitable activities like building houses for the homeless and caring for the elderly. Bush’s proposal closely mirrors Senators John McCain and Evan Bayh’s recently introduced Call to Service Act.
Why must Americans give up two years of their lives to change bedpans at nursing homes or teach children in Afghanistan? Because national service is a moral duty, its advocates claim, and the government should teach us that it is an integral part of American citizenship. Robin Gerber, a professor of leadership at the University of Maryland, writes: “Young Americans should be told they have an obligation to serve, a duty to actively support their democracy.” “We need to convey this expectation, that everyone should expect to give something back to their country,” says Leslie Lenkowsky, President Bush’s appointee to head the Corporation for National Service. Conservative writer David Brooks praises national-service legislation because it “takes kids out of the normal self-obsessed world of career and consumption and orients them toward service and citizenship.” Brooks favors military-related national service, because under it, “Today’s children . . . would suddenly face drill sergeants reminding them they are nothing without the group.”
This collectivist belief in the supremacy of the group over the individual is the foundation of the national-service ideology, which regards the individual as a servant to the nation. And the proponents of “duty” to the state, although they claim to be patriots, are espousing a view that is fundamentally un-American.
America was founded on the principle of individualism: the idea that each individual is a sovereign being with the moral right to his own life and to the achievement of his own goals. This is the basis of the political idea, enshrined in our Declaration of Independence, that the individual possesses inalienable rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. American individualism and freedom are incompatible with the notion that people are servants who owe their lives–or any portion of them–to the state. (Firefighters and policemen are not “servants” of the public–any more than are doctors or lawyers; rather, they are free individuals, who have chosen for their careers potentially dangerous work, and who expect to be paid accordingly.)
The logical end-road of the belief that you have a duty to serve the nation is legislation that forces you to do so–i.e., compulsory national service. Robert Litan of the Brookings Institution has proposed that every 18-year-old be forced to perform one year of compulsory service. This is nothing less than involuntary servitude of the youth of “the land of the free.” While President Bush claims to be in favor only of voluntary service, his and other proposals are a step in the direction of mandatory service. McCain and Bayh write that “national service should one day be a rite of passage for young Americans.” There is only one way to make national service a “rite of passage”–by government coercion. McCain has long-favored compulsory national service, but laments that it “is not currently politically practical.” Accepting the premise that service is a duty, Bush and others who now claim service should be voluntary will be morally powerless against future bills that seek to make it mandatory.
Every totalitarian society in history has rested on the premise of man’s alleged duty to the state. It was Adolf Hitler, for example, who preached that “the higher interests involved in the life of the whole must set the limits and lay down the duties of the interests of the individual.”
The attacks of September 11 should remind Americans of what makes our country great–its proud devotion to individualism and freedom. To defend America, we must embrace not the subjugation of the individual to “national service,” but his sovereign right to the pursuit of his own happiness.