In a December 2 op-ed in the Washington Times, “Building a Culture of Service,” John M. Bridgeland, president and director of USA Freedom Corps, wrote, “President Bush sought to foster a culture of service, citizenship, and responsibility” following the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, and, to that end, created the Freedom Corps. He then “asked every American to give at least two years of their lives in service to others.”
“Looking at how Americans are responding,” Bridgeland continued, “there are strong signs of hope. Within two years of the president’s call to service, the new Citizen Corps is mobilizing Americans nationwide…. Americans are signing up in droves to become an even greater nation of joiners and givers,” including doctors, nurses, neighborhood-watch committees, volunteer police officers, wildfire fighters, and hurricane response groups.
“It is this selfless service to others,” Bridgeland concludes, “that makes us unique in the world and connects us to what it really means to be an American.”
The trouble, however, is that this “culture of service” so praised by a government bureaucrat should give us far more reason to reflect than to celebrate.
America was not founded on the idea of “selfless service to others” as our highest ethical achievement. Thomas Jefferson penned the Declaration of Independence to declare to the world that “all Men are created equal” and “endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights” and “that to secure these Rights, Governments are instituted.” In other words, individuals have moral rights that preexist government, government exists to protect those rights, and people have a moral responsibility to respect the rights of others.
Modern libertarians have best explained this relationship as one in which every person is to be left free to pursue his own happiness, with government on hand to guard us from those who might defraud us or cause us physical harm.
Under this framework, people saw themselves as autonomous individuals with a moral endowment to proceed peacefully in the quest for their own personal fulfillment. This could be, and was, achieved in any number and combination of ways: commerce, religion, charity, artistic expression, family, industry, chastity, prudence, entrepreneurship, investment — all were seen as paths to personal enrichment and the creation of a richer, kinder, more peaceful nation.
What made us “unique in the world,” then — what it really meant to be an American — was that, for the first time in history, a group of people had constructed a government which, for the most part, was morally as well as legally restricted from interfering with the peaceful actions of the citizenry. Americans saw government essentially as the means to just one end: keeping the peace.
As the French philosopher and statesman Frédéric Bastiat explained in The Law, written 60 years after the ratification of the Constitution, “If every person has the right to defend — even by force — his person, his liberty, and his property, then it follows that a group of men have the right to organize and support a common force to protect these rights constantly.” That is why Americans created their government.
The moral foundation of American society was never supposed to be service — it was meant to be freedom, which is why the Constitution limited the central government to executing a handful of delegated functions, none of which included enlisting or cajoling people into joining a government “corps” for “service to others.” As Sheldon Richman noted in Your Money or Your Life, “The United States of America was the first nation self-consciously created for the sake of the individual.”
Of course, no one has ever been forbidden to help another in this republic. On the contrary, it was precisely because of the culture of freedom protected by the Constitution that charitableness, free to exist, became commonplace in our society.
With the establishment of a free political system, unprecedented material gains were able to unfold. During the course of the first hundred-plus years of this nation’s existence, living standards skyrocketed as a direct result of government’s “hands off” approach to Americans’ personal affairs. Property rights, limited government, and the rule of law meant that businesses were safe to make lots and lots of money, without fear of confiscation and redistribution. As a result, Americans, working together through voluntary cooperation and trade, built the richest country in the history of the world.
As general wealth grew, so too did the spread of philanthropy. Few realize it, but the many institutions they take for granted today to provide assistance to the poor and underprivileged and the many museums found in our large cities have their roots in the wealth and productivity of the 19th century.
Wealth and charity
This shouldn’t be surprising: As more and more people were able to build personal wealth — as long as government was staying out of people’s way and allowing them to create and amass great fortunes — more money was available to donate to causes for the not-so-well-off. For example, John D. Rockefeller, the great oil tycoon so vilified by modern statists, actually gave more money to charity in his lifetime than anyone had ever previously made in his lifetime. Even today, laboring under a historically high tax burden, Americans still give upwards of $200 billion per year to charity.
Early Americans would actually have been quite wary of a federally sponsored “culture of service.” Thomas Jefferson, who supported poor relief at the local level, nonetheless wanted assistance administered by the vestrymen of each parish or by county government but only for “vagabonds” and “able-bodied persons not having wherewithal to maintain themselves,” and that even those few be kept in poorhouses.
“Selfless service,” for Jefferson, would have extended, at most, to the barest minimum of assistance to the “poor, lame, impotent [weak], blind and other inhabitants of the county as are not able to maintain themselves.” He would never have supported a federal program decreed by the president to “connect millions of Americans to service opportunities in communities, schools, and workplaces,” as Freedom Corps director Bridgeland boasts of his new bureaucracy.
“Service” and the welfare state
The involvement of government in welfare and other types of service to the poor was viewed with considerable suspicion by the Framers. Benjamin Franklin saw the result of England’s relatively extensive welfare system as harmful to the character of the citizen. “I am for doing good to the poor,” he wrote, “but I differ in opinion of the means. I think the best way of doing good to the poor, is not making them easy in poverty, but leading or driving them out of it.”
Today, the federal government provides, in Bridgeland’s words, “the most comprehensive online clearinghouse connecting citizens with service opportunities close to home or” — lest we think that our responsibility to serve others ends at the border — “around the world.”
Perhaps this stands to reason: If ours is indeed to be a “culture of service,” then the least the government could do is make it easy for us to fulfill our destiny, as defined by a government bureaucracy.
One could argue that this is all much ado about nothing, that in an op-ed penned to promote USA Freedom Corps it is reasonable to expect so much emphasis to be put on service.
That ignores, however, a key reality: An idea growing in popularity — in newspaper editorials, on talk radio, on TV news programs, in boardrooms, in the workplace, in virtually every last vestige of our society — is that Americans have a legal responsibility to serve others, so much so that to suggest otherwise is to risk becoming a social pariah.
But should service be the business of government? A search of both the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution — America’s two founding documents — finds not one reference to the power of government to force American citizens to serve their fellow man. In fact, the sole purpose behind the crafting of those documents was to define the proper role of government in serving the citizen … by leaving him free to manage his own affairs, including whether, how, and when he will voluntarily extend a hand of charity to others. The Founders were wise enough to understand that the best way of providing for the less fortunate was to maintain a culture of freedom, and, by extension, prosperity. They also realized that a virtuous society could be possible only if built on a foundation of personal autonomy. Coerced compassion is not deserving of the name.
One might think that if selfless service to others was meant to be our society’s guiding light, those who created the political framework to protect it might have mentioned it once!
Bridgeland’s op-ed, by comparison, used the words “serve” or “service” no fewer than 16 times, but not one time did he offer so much as a passing glance at the concepts of individual rights, limited government, or the individual pursuit of happiness. For Bridgeland — and we can presume for President Bush, as well — the model citizen sees his most profound duty — “what it really means to be an American” — as serving his fellow man, and government as the instrument for achieving that goal.
This is highly dangerous to a culture of freedom. Any society that allows its government to define “what it really means” to be a good citizen has reversed the relationship between governed and government: It is the citizen who tells government what is right and proper, not the other way around. Sad to say, we’re well beyond this point.
What’s next? If an American president can state, without any fear of criticism, that each and every citizen owes two years of his life — his life! — to another, and establish, at the stroke of a pen, a government bureau to promote that agenda, then how far can we be from instituting the kind of “national service” regime common under statist governments around the world? Remember, too, that no totalitarian system has ever been created without first convincing the people that their highest duty is to serve something other than themselves, such as their race, ethnicity, religion, class, or nation.
Our society was meant to be different, yet if we continue down a road that allows government officials to supplant our own value judgments with theirs, demanding that we substitute voluntary cooperation, charity, and trade with a duty to serve, and demonstrate our citizenship not by respecting the equal rights of others but by sacrificing ourselves to them, then an American Fatherland may be much closer than we think. Then ours will be not a culture of freedom or a culture of service, but a culture of subservience.
This article was originally published in the March 2004 edition of Freedom Daily.