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Mandatory Volunteerism: Were Orwell Alive, He’d Die of Laughter

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President Clinton has hitched his wagon to one of the most abominable ideas to come down the pike in some time: community service as part of the school curriculum. Is there a single proposal packed with more fallacies? I doubt it. Where to begin? In getting ready for a national service summit, the president said that “every young American should be taught the joy and the duty of serving, and should learn it at the moment when it will have the most enduring impact on the rest of their lives.” Leaving aside the merit of that claim, we need to ask who should do the teaching. The duty of serving is a matter of morality, and that is the province of the family, not the schools. Parents typically want their children’s schools to encourage virtue.

But we have a problem when it comes to the government’s schools. Because those schools are financed by taxation and filled through compulsory-attendance laws, they are virtual monopolies. Most people have to send their kids there. Now we are talking about imposing particular moral lessons on children, perhaps against parents’ wishes. That’s wrong in a free society.

The answer to the monopoly problem, of course, is to separate school and state for the same reasons we separate church and state. We don’t want the state to be our pastor. If it must do something, let it do no more than keep the peace, so that we may each pursue the good life as we see it.

Private schools of course should be free to make community service part of their curricula if they wish. Parents are free to find other schools if they object. The market will cater to a variety of consumer demands.

If people want to perform community service or have their children so do, nothing stops them. It’s not as if no one would do anything without school-based “service.” Tens of millions of people, including students, already do uncoerced community service. There are thousands of outlets: churches, scouts, clubs, and so on. Why must government schools get involved?

Advocates of community service should be offended that it would be part of the school curriculum. If it is explicitly compulsory, we have the absurdity of mandatory volunteerism. That’s a great lesson: Serve or else! Pardon me, but wouldn’t that undermine the spirit of service? The regime in Orwell’s 1984 said that freedom is slavery. I guess it would follow that slavery is freedom or that’s what President Clinton would have us believe. Just how does one teach the joy of service by compelling it? Would someone answer that question?

If rather than outright compulsion, the schools award students extra credit for service, advocates should be even more offended. How does that teach duty? It is likely that students will learn only that there are material benefits from service not the lesson Mr. Clinton had in mind. One school district with compulsory service won’t allow students to use scouting to satisfy the requirement because merit badges are deemed compensation.

Everyone thinks he knows what service means. But it’s not that simple. What should count? If a student logs time with Friends of the Earth or Public Citizen, that no doubt would count. What if he volunteers at Friends of Industrialism or Supporters of Global Warming or Conspicuous Consumers of America? (Put the phone book down; I made them up.) I doubt that the authorities will really remain agnostic on the question of what counts.

Let’s take this further. Why shouldn’t a student get credit working for pay at a place of business? It’s obviously service. Recall the slogan “Service with a Smile.” If someone buys a product, he expects to benefit. Anyone who helps a customer is rendering a service. But, you might be thinking, the student would get money for his “service.” If that taints it, why doesn’t extra credit do so too? The taint from compulsion is too obvious for comment.

The focus of the national service movement is on school-aged children. But let’s keep in mind that it has favored compulsory service for older people as well. It has proposed that high-school graduates be required to perform service before moving on to college. Some have advocated a big national service program with military and civilian options. Conservatives and statist liberals endorse such programs. This is the old-fashioned Prussian “blood and iron” mentality that says people have obligations to society (beyond the abstention from force) and that the state must force the people to fulfill them if necessary. What it really means is that people are to be brought up believing they belong to the state. Government schools help accomplish that. Community service is just the other shoe dropping.

We might also note that the focus on young people is misplaced even from the view of the service advocates. If the point of service is to “give something back to the community,” as the advocates like to say, shouldn’t it be older people who are obligated to serve? They are the ones who have been reaping the benefits of society longer. Young people are just starting. Do they have to pay in advance?

As we can see, the discussion of service hits some basic issues. One of Adam Smith’s famous points was that we don’t expect our dinner from the benevolence of the butcher, brewer, and baker but rather from their regard for their own interests. He went on to say that people advancing their own interests do a better job of serving us than do people who serve us only because they care about us.

Some years ago George Gilder wrote that capitalism is founded on altruism. His book Wealth and Poverty was full of fascinating insights, but on that point he was wrong. Capitalism is founded on the right of each individual to strive to make the most of his life, however he conceives it. That’s why we have prospered as our ancestors could never have imagined.

It is true, of course, that someone trying to get rich has to attend to the interests of others. That’s one of the marvelous things about the marketplace. It’s a grand harmonizer of interests. Self-interest has what economists call “positive externalities,” which is just an unsightly term meaning benefits for others. You’d think this would merit capitalism some extra credit. Does it get it? Not bloody often.

Capitalism’s critics like to say it is based on the Darwinian principle of the survival of the fittest. That is a very funny allegation. First, it applies to any social system. The “fittest” are those who best meet the requirements of the system. When society is controlled by the state, those who are skilled at deceit, treachery, and brutality rise, as Friedrich A. Hayek put it, to the top. In a market society, the skills rewarded are creative attentiveness to consumers entrepreneurship. In each case, the fittest advance and, at least in relative terms, prosper.

In a state-controlled society, the external effects are bad. In the market, they are good. To be as precise as possible, capitalism is based not on survival of the fittest but rather on advancement of the fittest. After all, in the market the less “fit” don’t perish. They just make less money. That is no small consideration when comparing capitalism with other social arrangements.

But let’s accept the critics’ terms and see what happens. Try this syllogism on for size:

“Capitalism is the survival of the fittest.

“Experience shows that under capitalism, it is easier to survive; that is, people live longer, healthier, more prosperous lives with less effort.

“Therefore, capitalism makes people fit.”

Not a bad recommendation for that much maligned system.

If people wish to perform service for others, they of course should be free to do so, with their own time and money. They should neither be forced nor use force in the name of service. A legally enforceable obligation to perform service clashes with the principles of the free society and proclaims that individuals are not self-owners but rather the property of society or the state. If there is no right to live for one’s own sake, there are no rights at all.

Mr. Richman is vice president of policy affairs at The Future of Freedom Foundation and author of the forthcoming book Your Money or Your Life: Why We Must Abolish the Income Tax .

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    Sheldon Richman is vice president of The Future of Freedom Foundation and editor of FFF's monthly journal, Future of Freedom. For 15 years he was editor of The Freeman, published by the Foundation for Economic Education in Irvington, New York. He is the author of FFF's award-winning book Separating School & State: How to Liberate America's Families; Your Money or Your Life: Why We Must Abolish the Income Tax; and Tethered Citizens: Time to Repeal the Welfare State. Calling for the abolition, not the reform, of public schooling. Separating School & State has become a landmark book in both libertarian and educational circles. In his column in the Financial Times, Michael Prowse wrote: "I recommend a subversive tract, Separating School & State by Sheldon Richman of the Cato Institute, a Washington think tank... . I also think that Mr. Richman is right to fear that state education undermines personal responsibility..." Sheldon's articles on economic policy, education, civil liberties, American history, foreign policy, and the Middle East have appeared in the Washington Post, Wall Street Journal, American Scholar, Chicago Tribune, USA Today, Washington Times, The American Conservative, Insight, Cato Policy Report, Journal of Economic Development, The Freeman, The World & I, Reason, Washington Report on Middle East Affairs, Middle East Policy, Liberty magazine, and other publications. He is a contributor to the The Concise Encyclopedia of Economics. A former newspaper reporter and senior editor at the Cato Institute and the Institute for Humane Studies, Sheldon is a graduate of Temple University in Philadelphia. He blogs at Free Association. Send him e-mail.