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

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President Clinton has endorsed one of most ridiculous ideas to come down the pike in some time: community service as part of the school curriculum. Is there a single idea packed with so many fallacies? I don’t think so.

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 of taxation and compulsory attendance, 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.)

What’s more, tens of millions of people already do uncoerced community service. There are thousands of outlets. Why must the schools get involved?

Advocates of community service should be offended that it would be part of the curriculum. If it is explicitly compulsory, we have the absurdity of mandatory volunteerism. That’s a great lesson: serve or else! If 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.

What should count as service? If a student logs time with Friends of the Earth, that no doubt will count. What if he volunteers at Friends of Industrialism or Supporters of Global Warming? (Put the phone book down; I made them up.)

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

The discussion of service hits some basic issues. Adam Smith famously wrote that we don’t expect our dinner from the benevolence of the butcher, brewer, and baker. He went on to say that people serving their own interests do a better job of serving us than do people who say they care only about us. I’d trust an entrepreneur sooner than someone forced to help me.

Some years ago George Gilder wrote that capitalism is founded on altruism. He was wrong. Capitalism is founded on the right of the individual to strive to make the most of his life. That’s why we have prospered as our ancestors could never have imagined.

A person trying to get rich has to attend to the needs and wishes of others. That’s the funny thing about the marketplace. It’s a grand harmonizer of interests. You’d think this would merit some extra credit. Does the marketplace get it? Not bloody much.

Capitalism’s critics like to say it is based on the survival of the fittest. Try this syllogism on for size:

Capitalism is the survival of the fittest. Under capitalism, people live longer, healthier, more prosperous lives. Therefore, capitalism makes people fit.

Not a bad recommendation. You want to help mankind? Look after yourself.

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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.