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Wednesday November 19, 2008 8:08 am

Werd: Service - Part Three


The general objections[1] I have found against Obama’s proposed America Serves program are:

  1. This unpaid manpower will be used for nefarious means; with the volunteers steered into programs that support Obama’s socialist goals.

  2. The program will cost taxpayers money in subsidizing the college grants and insuring and providing resources for students to complete their service and is another example of government waste without any quantifiable levels of improvement.

  3. These service programs are one step away from the institution of a military draft.

  4. Service to one’s community necessarily derivatives from the American Dream, which is one of individual primacy, not a communal movement.

  5. Giving jobs to unpaid students will debilitate the market for paying jobs and therefore will send us down the road to a complete communist state.

  6. What is suggested as altruistic service often becomes government-subsidized coercion: a violation of an American’s right to serve as they chose to, whether paid or not.

[Sources: The Heritage Foundation blog, The Volokh Conspiracy, this Mises.org forumLew Rockwell editorial, and Bovard’s objections to the AmeriCorps program as outlined in Wikipedia.]

First, I agree with the idea that mandatory volunteerism is an oxymoron that violates the spirit of service.[2]  Although there is something to be said about a slight nudge of reward.  (As I mentioned in Part Two this week, my reward for high school mandatory service was a diploma [and, perhaps even greater for some of my peers: some time off from school]).  It is also my belief that there is no action any human can do that is without regard to the self: even the greatest martyr attempts to find some personal immortality in history, so does the volunteer attempt to improve himself in his/her act of service.  To believe that any service can be done without an accumulation of reward is unrealistic.  The important thing, I believe, is that the rewards we give to those performing service further the goals of service (as stated yesterday): which is the allowance of time to others and the perpetuation of a service-minded (outward-looking) community.

The truth is, after reading the sources above, I can’t readily disagree with any of the arguments (though they each appeal to only my most negative of assumptions about service).  Just as I know the rewards of service, I also know of the futility.  There are often moments during service when I wonder if I am making any real difference at all.  Did the children I watched in the playground uniformly grow to appreciate the time I gave?  Did the teachers use their free time to improve their classroom efforts?  I can’t ever know. 

When I coached Little League, I felt the joy of being a part of a young child’s life, teaching them something, offering them encouragement and respect.  But at the end of each practice and game, they returned to their homes that gave them the lessons that were much more likely to last a lifetime, for good or for bad.  My time with them was only temporary: a small sacrifice at the altar of trying to do good.  Was my unpaid service any nobler or any more effective than the time paid teachers gave them on a daily basis?  Was my investment in their growth of greater proportion than their investments of time made by their (unpaid) parents?  It seems doubtful.

I find it only a shame (and an irony[3]) that military service is so often given such great respect, while service to one’s community can be seen as wasteful and full of malicious intent.  Indeed, in my opinion, military service can be just as wasteful and filled with the same malicious goals, and yet our nation sees in military service the virtues of honorable sacrifice that it cannot assume in community service.  I suggest here, merely, that both perceptions are either wrong or right, but it is nonsense to insist that military service is virtuous while community service is questionable (or vice-versa). 

The more modest reality is that all of our actions, when they intertwine with the actions of others, are a service.  Our impact may be great, it may be minuscule, but the value exists not in the outcomes of our service (whether or not we lose or win the war, whether or not the child becomes a philanthropist or criminal) but in the combination of our intentions and our subsequent reflection upon that service.  I cannot say that I have improved the lives of others with my service, but I know that the interaction of my life with the many lives that service has delivered across my path has broadened and enriched my experience of life.  To live life amongst an even greater number of humans is always a gift.

I cannot say that any sort of mandatory service program will make the world a better place, but I know that it will expand the lives of all those who choose to participate.  Were Obama’s goal of America Serves made this modest, I think many of the objections given above would be quickly dismissed.  If students freely chose to give their time to others, we would find the real revolution that Obama here attempts to govern.  As it stands, it seems we must still offer the terrestrial rewards that suggest the real revolution is beyond our modern grasp.

So in the meantime, as we debate the relative merits of a program that is not yet actualized, put yourself in the center of the debate and give an hour of your time to a cause of your choice.  I may not be able to feel you making a difference, but you will feel the difference being made in yourself.  Of the many hours we are given in our lives, it would be a shame not to explore the potential of offering some of that time for the benefit of a fellow American.  If you are a true explorer in life, and not simply an ideologue, you will surely accept my modest challenge (please feel free to report back).  After you give your time, can you still say the goal of service is a threatening one?  It may be wasteful, self-indulgent, or coerced, but service will never be a threat to our existence as Americans.

[1]When the America Serves program was pushed around the Interweb, the most common objection was the suggestion that it would be a mandatory program.  After enough bloggers suggested the program was reminiscent of Hitler Youth, the website/administration changed the wording to make it a call for public service, not a mandatory call for service (you can read about the changing words here).  For those interested, the Hitler Youth promoted “physical and military training” (a pair of very individual pursuits) not any sort of volunteer or community-building efforts. 
[2]The Maryland public school system has made service mandatory since 1992.  Despite many initial objections, the program has thrived and developed a philosophy of service-learning that will surely be a part of any program Obama pushes to initiate.  Many, if not all, of the objections raised in the list above can be proven extraneous by the success of this long-standing, mandatory program.
[3]My favorite irony is the libertarian/free-market capitalist belief in philanthropy instead of government-funded charities.  Their rationale insists that a private benefactor donating money is a noble movement of money/services/resources, but if we give the money as a group of Americans, we are participating in some sort of communism.  Do not the funnels of both privately funded and publicly funded charities move towards the same batch of needy Americans?  And the private benefactor is always rewarded with a tax reduction.  Yawn.  Let us not forget that the GOP platform on day 1 of their convention was a message of service.  I assumed at the time that it was merely a tactic to force voters to forget the “service” delivered by the Bush administration after Hurricane Katrina as another storm threatened the gulf coast, and from the reactions to Obama’s plan for service from the right-wing, it surely seems to only have been lip service.

Service - Part One
Service - Part Two
Service - Part Three
Service - Part Four
Service - Part Five

Patrick Snajder publishes A World of Logical Consequences and is currently pursuing his dream to become a professional in the animal husbandry industry.



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