Slate's Jacob Weisberg sensibly (thought

Slate's Jacob Weisberg sensibly (thought weakly) opposes new calls for conscription, but he wrongly plumps for an enlarged AmeriCorps. It's voluntary, and we can use it to reap some of the cohesive benefits of war time, he says. Weisberg's all kinds of supportive for the McCain/Bayh bill that will quintuple AmeriCorps. He writes:

This approach avoids both the democratic problem of unjustified compulsion and the practical one of finding useful work for millions of young people in the midst of recession and war. At the same time, it points in the direction of national service one day becoming a kind of social norm and expectation.

I have two big problems with this: (1) Nationalizing voluntarism will have a degrading effect on the national ethos; (2) “National Service” does not require a collective, taxpayer-funded organization.
Concerning (1), US citizens already contribute enormous amounts of money and time to charity, more than any other nation, and it is used effectively. Americans tend to focus on actually solving problems rather than devising symbols, like AmeriCorps, that help wrap the state in the rhetoric of concern. Exactly what service does Weisberg think the AmeriCorpers are going to be providing? It's funny how little he focuses on this. The value that Weisberg seems mainly interested in is a vague sense of national we're-in-it-togetherness. He's not thinking first about people on the ground getting help.
Americans in fact get helped through a multitude of decentralized charities and organizations. AmeriCorps will (a) be competing for these volunteers, (b) cause folks to think they don't have to help because those kids from AmeriCorps will do it, and thus (c) degrade the spirit of charity and solidarity at the local level. Because people live at the local level, that's where we need we're-in-it-togetherness. If you're in Mobile, Alabama, you're not really in it with folks in Seattle any more than your in it with folks from Vancouver. What's really the point of peacetime national solidarity and national service, other than the aggrandizement of the nation-state?
Concerning (2), it aggravates me that people working in the private sector aren't understood to be doing a public service. Researchers at Human Genome Sciences who find the genes for certain medical disorders, or traders on Wall Street who help move resources to their most efficient uses, do much greater service to the nation than people who volunteer to clean up vacant lots or tutor kids. Yes, cleaning and tutoring is fantastic, and we should encourage folks to do it. But compared to the for-profit endeavors that make our country so enormously wealthy and secure, these are national service garnishes. And how about folks like me who work at privately funded non-profits. I'm not doing a national service by introducing hundreds of college students to the classical liberal political tradition?
So, we're all doing “national service” anyway. But if national service has to be understood as something that flows from altruistic/nationalistic impulses, there's no reason why it cannot be privately funded. Let Warren Buffet and Bill Gates team up to privately fund a public service organization. The problem with taxpayer funded adventures is that people are coerced into contributing — a kind of financial conscription, which is inconsistent with the spirit of benevolence and voluntarism. Being forced to fund Americorps is not so different from being forced to serve in it.

Author: Will Wilkinson

Vice President for Research at the Niskanen Center