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TGIF: National Servitude

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To make citizens, we must facilitate the shared experiences that cultivate civic pride and responsibility.

This should mean a period of full-time national service as a rite of passage for every young American, ages 18 to 28. Such service could be military or civilian. Young adults could choose the Army or Peace Corps, Marine Corps or AmeriCorps, the Navy or VISTA.

So exhort John Bridgeland and Alan Khazei, co-chairs of the Franklin Project at the Aspen Institute, writing at Politico under the title “National Service Is Key to National Strength.”

I hasten to point out that as Bridgeland and Khazei envision it, “National service would be optional.”  However, they immediately add, “but expected. Every college admissions officer or employer must start to ask, ‘Where did you serve?’”

Bridgeland and Khazei are joined in this promotion by Time magazine, whose editor, Richard Stengel, boasts in “our annual national service issue” (July 1): “Six summers ago, we published a cover story called ‘The Case for National Service,’ in which I proposed that every American high school student do a year of service after graduation.” He repeats that call again this year. The magazine’s cover shouts: “How Service Can Save Us.”

So-called national service need not be compulsory to be objectionable, although that would make it something far worse: short-term slavery. I say “so-called national service” to draw attention to the movement’s premise that one can benefit one’s fellow human beings only by serving “the nation” through the state.

I wish to challenge this premise.

Leaving aside any question of moral duty, the fact is that in a free society, in which aggressive force is barred and all relationships are voluntary, people naturally seek to satisfy one another’s wants in order to improve their own lots in life. As the early French economists liked to say: Society is exchange, and exchange is mutually beneficial.

Exchange is at the very heart of a civil society based on voluntarism and free markets. (Government, by contrast, is force and intimidation.) Each individual wants things in order to live the sort of life she wishes, things she wouldn’t be able to make herself. In a free society, no one may compel another to work for her benefit. If A wants something from B, A must offer to perform a service on acceptable terms for B (for example, the production of a good). To succeed, A must be sensitive to what others want. The money A possesses after a successful exchange signifies that she has benefited her fellow human beings, and with that money she may now engage in further exchanges to obtain the things she wants.

Considering how common and how beneficial this mutual service is, it is odd that it is not counted as service by those who want young people pushed into government programs.

Perhaps it’s so common that most people take it for granted. We simply don’t realize how much better off we are because of the social cooperation, division of labor, and mutual service that arise naturally among human beings — without government help. As Bastiat pointed out in Economic Harmonies,

It is impossible not to be struck by the disproportion, truly incommensurable, that exists between the satisfactions [a person belonging to a modest class] derives from society and the satisfactions that he could provide for himself if he were reduced to his own resources. I make bold to say that in one day he consumes more things than he could produce himself in ten centuries.

Adam Smith had more than a few insights into the services that human beings render one another in civil society. In the first chapter of The Wealth of Nations, he wrote,

In civilized society [the individual] stands at all times in need of the co-operation and assistance of great multitudes, while his whole life is scarce sufficient to gain the friendship of a few persons. In almost every other race of animals each individual, when it is grown up to maturity, is entirely independent, and in its natural state has occasion for the assistance of no other living creature. But man has almost constant occasion for the help of his brethren, and it is in vain for him to expect it from their benevolence only. He will be more likely to prevail if he can interest their self-love in his favour, and shew them that it is for their own advantage to do for him what he requires of them. Whoever offers to another a bargain of any kind, proposes to do this: Give me that which I want, and you shall have this which you want, is the meaning of every such offer; and it is in this manner that we obtain from one another the far greater part of those good offices which we stand in need of. It is not from the benevolence of the butcher, the brewer, or the baker, that we expect our dinner, but from their regard to their own interest. We address ourselves, not to their humanity but to their self-love, and never talk to them of our own necessities but of their advantages.

Smith added later that a person’s direct efforts to advance the social good are often less effective than efforts motivated by personal gain:

He is … led by an invisible hand to promote an end which was no part of his intention. Nor is it always the worse for the society that it was no part of it. By pursuing his own interest he frequently promotes that of the society more effectually than when he really intends to promote it.

The advocates of “national service” might counter that nothing counts as service that is motivated by personal gain. But how will they know that the young people who enlist in VISTA or AmeriCorps aren’t doing so merely to qualify for student loans or other government benefits, or to have an answer for their college or job interviewers?

Champions of national service might also argue that market activity only benefits people who have the means to buy things. What about people in dire need?

Two answers: First, entrepreneurial innovations that increase the supply and cut the cost of goods especially help those most in need. Individuals who strive to make the necessities and luxuries of life accessible to more people are indeed rendering a service. (Bastiat explained that progress in the market consists in the transfer of wealth from the private realm to the “communal realm” and the creation of “gratuitous utility.” See my “Bastiat on the Socialization of Wealth.”)

Diverting young people into what is called national service will merely keep them from work that will benefit others in ways that really count. What makes anyone think that this delay would be worthwhile?

Second, what people typically think of as service does not require government projects. For example, literacy programs can be financed and administered on a voluntary basis — more efficiently and justly because no coercive bureaucracy would be involved. And as long as we’re thinking about literacy programs — perhaps these wouldn’t be necessary if the bumbling, coercive bureaucracy removed itself from education and left it to innovative and competitive entrepreneurship.

One suspects that even if national-service advocates agreed that all worthwhile services could be rendered in a purely voluntary manner, they still would not be satisfied because it would be too self-directed, too individualistic. “It’s been generations since the majority of young Americans came together to serve the nation,” Bridgeland and Khazei write.

What do they really want: improvement in the lives of people or service to “the nation,” which always translates into service to the state? If it’s the latter, they should remind themselves that earlier attempts to institutionalize that notion of duty weren’t pretty.

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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.