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Sovietizing American Virtue

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“The higher interest involved in the life of the whole must set the limits and lay down the duties of the individual,” according to Adolf Hitler. Hitler’s views are generally unpopular in the United States. However, some of his moral dogmas may be staging a comeback.

At the Volunteer Summit in Philadelphia, President Clinton declared: “To be a good citizen, you have to obey the law, you’ve got to go to work or be in school, you’ve got to pay your taxes, and — oh, yes, you have to serve your community to help make it a better place.” According to Clinton, anyone who is not working or sitting in a school is a bad citizen — thereby labeling anyone enjoying extended leisure as an antisocial drone. And Clinton’s notion that “you have to serve your community” to be a good citizen is simply another attempt by politicians to browbeat Americans into greater servility.

Since Clinton took office, government spending and employment has surged across the nation. Tax Freedom Day — the day each year that the average person ceases working for government and begins working for himself — has gone from April 30 in the year Clinton was first elected to May 9 this year, according to the Tax Foundation. But regardless of how many extra days citizens are compelled to work for the state, that does not count in Clinton’s “register of virtue.” The extra days people work to pay taxes since he took office don’t count as “volunteering,” since the IRS relies on guns and levies, not syrupy appeals.

Clinton proclaimed in Philadelphia: “Our mission is nothing less than to spark a renewed sense of obligation, a new sense of duty, a new season of service.” Clinton is urging American communities to force all public schools to require high-school students to perform a certain number of hours of community service (thereby putting the students in the same distinguished class as drunk drivers and wife beaters) before being allowed to receive a high-school diploma. It is amusing to see Clinton — the chief shill for the National Education Association — concocting a new task for schools to perform, one more scam to distract attention from the schools’ otherwise miserable performance. Maryland, which has pioneered the mandatory service requirement for high-school diplomas, is a state with high taxes to support schools — and pathetic education. According to former Assistant Secretary of Education Chester Finn:

“In Maryland, where [mandatory] service learning has made so much headway, only 22 percent of fourth graders were ‘proficient’ readers on the latest national assessment and, on the state’s own tests, fewer than half of the eighth graders performed satisfactorily in math. Schools that can barely teach the fundamental skills and information needed by every citizen are now being used by government and adult activists to shape students, attitudes and assumptions about citizenship itself.”

As part of the grandiose “socialist realism” style of the Clinton administration, the president is planning to spend $27 million to recruit 1 million volunteers “to help 2 million vulnerable children (one child at a time) to read by the year 2000.” Politicians compel taxpayers to surrender more than $300 billion a year to pay the costs of public schools. Then, when the public schools dismally fail, the solution is to shift further burdens on parents and others. Clinton declared: “The most important people are those who teach the student to read. . . .” Teachers are apparently the most important people, regardless of whether they actually teach kids how to read. While the Clinton administration has been vigilant on health care fraud, it has yet to recognize the existence of educational fraud. Instead of volunteers for schools, politicians should cease delivering children as bound hostages to teachers’ unions and should instead privatize education as quickly as possible.

More than 90 million Americans already spend time each year volunteering. But Clinton is not nearly satisfied and insists that goals and timetables be established to pressure and compel more Americans to give up their free time for politically approved causes. However, recruitment of endless new legions of social workers will do little to solve America’s problems.

One of the most respected nonprofit organizations in the United States is Habitat for Humanity, an organization through which many thousands of Americans have donated their time to build homes for the poor. It is well and good that many Americans have thereby tried to show their concern for their fellow citizen.

However, regardless of how many nails Habitat volunteers hammer or how many shingles they repair, they do not have a snowball’s chance in hell of counteracting all the damage done by pernicious federal, state, and local housing policies. Roughly 200 American cities and towns have imposed rent control on landlords and apartment owners. Rent control is probably the single most effective way to destroy any incentive to maintain property. Vast swaths of New York City have degenerated into total squalor in large part because of rent control.

The federal government’s largest rental subsidy program, Section 8, is also notorious for gutting neighborhoods. Ann Skea of Alexandria, Virginia, complained to the Washington Post last month: “To many area residents, Section 8 is synonymous with dilapidated homes, drug dealing, crack houses and a host of other social and criminal problems.” Officials in Pacesetter, Illinois, claimed that “a sudden influx into the neighborhood of [Section 8] subsidized families about six years ago turned a borderline neighborhood into a slum,” as one business journal reported. The image of violence around Section 8 has become so accepted that a Washington, D.C., rap band even named itself “Section 8 Mob.” Yet, politicians have no interest in limiting their own power over housing, regardless of how much damage they do. Instead, their solution is to lecture private citizens about their duty to get out and volunteer their labor in a quixotic attempt to correct the damage done by government housing policies.

At the same time that the political establishment converged on Philadelphia to demand that the state take a pound of flesh from young people’s lives, Rep. Rick Lazio (R-N.Y.) introduced a bill to require that nondisabled, unemployed, out-of-school adult residents of public housing perform eight hours a month of volunteer work within the community in which their family resided. Florida Rep. Dave Weldon (R) declared that the public housing residents “are getting free electricity, free housing, a free refrigerator and all you’re asking them to work is two hours a week. Come on, that’s an Oprah Winfrey show.” Democrats and statist liberals went ballistic: Connecticut Rep. Rosa DeLauro (D) complained that “the only acceptable use of forced labor is as punishment for a crime, and it is not a crime to be poor.” Fewer than 15 percent of welfare recipients work full time. Politicians have no problem forcing taxpayers to work more than a third of the year to bankroll housing subsidies and other boondoggles. Yet, the thought that welfare recipients would have to work a single day a month mortified many congressmen.

Clinton’s rhetoric implies that only “volunteer” work can improve American society. Does that mean that government employees would become more virtuous if we stopped paying them salaries or canceled their pension plans? If so, then perhaps the idea is worth pursuing.

America has vast social and economic problems because of people’s not taking responsibility for their own lives and their own children and because of people’s relying on politicians to plunder their neighbors for their own profit. Yet, rather than telling people to stop screwing up their own lives and dodging their own responsibilities (a message that may not have been so popular in some of Philadelphia’s rougher neighborhoods) or telling them to stop living off the federal dole (a message that would have outraged many of the visiting politicians), Clinton’s solution is to exhort everyone to “volunteer” to help everyone else.

Listening to Clinton and other politicians, it sounds almost as if all of a citizen’s free time is to be considered a politicians’ plaything. Many, if not most, working parents probably spend more time in forced labor paying their tax bills than they spend with their own children. But perhaps in Clinton’s book of virtue, volunteering counts only if one is performing in a public sphere where his virtue can be applauded.

America does not need a Soviet-style five-year plan to increase volunteerism by 9 percent a year. Rather than bombastically encouraging people to do work outside their jobs, politicians should cease creating so many problems for other Americans to clean up. Clinton’s sanctimonious service rhetoric is one more reason for people to profoundly distrust politicians and the state that they serve.

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    James Bovard serves as policy adviser to The Future of Freedom Foundation. He has written for the New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, The Washington Post, New Republic, Reader's Digest, Playboy, American Spectator, Investors Business Daily, and many other publications. He is the author of a new e-book memoir, Public Policy Hooligan. His other books include: Attention Deficit Democracy (2006); The Bush Betrayal (2004); Terrorism and Tyranny (2003); Feeling Your Pain (2000); Freedom in Chains (1999); Shakedown (1995); Lost Rights (1994); The Fair Trade Fraud (1991); and The Farm Fiasco (1989). He was the 1995 co-recipient of the Thomas Szasz Award for Civil Liberties work, awarded by the Center for Independent Thought, and the recipient of the 1996 Freedom Fund Award from the Firearms Civil Rights Defense Fund of the National Rifle Association. His book Lost Rights received the Mencken Award as Book of the Year from the Free Press Association. His Terrorism and Tyranny won Laissez Faire Book's Lysander Spooner award for the Best Book on Liberty in 2003. Read his blog. Send him email.