March 29, 2009

On My Opposition to the Youth National Service Bill

Filed under: Politics — PolitiCalypso @ 4:30 pm

It’s uncommon for me to find myself in agreement with hard right-wing Republicans and opposed to moderate, mainstream conservative, and liberal members of Congress. However, with respect to the GIVE Act, the bill that restarts and revamps a national civilian service program for young people, this is indeed the case. (Here is a listing of the yea and nay votes from the Senate, just to prove exactly whose votes I agree with and whose I don’t.) I’m not going to let this bother me, though. I know what I think about it and I figure that you take what support you can get.

Some of the objections that have been raised to this bill are erroneous and relate to specific details of the legislation. My objection is of a different nature. I don’t (yet) fear any sort of authoritarian mandatory service policy. I don’t fear a conspiracy to produce a generation of kids who idolize Big Brother a la 1984. My opposition is not even based on a particular provision or provisions of this legislation, because that would imply that if those provisions were changed, it could make the bill palatable for me. Rather, my objection to this bill is philosophical and principled. I am philosophically against the idea that regular individuals, who have not done anything to parasitize or harm society, owe it any sort of debt of service, paid or unpaid. I am against this bill and the ideas underlying it because I object to the notion that there is any obligation or responsibility on the part of regular people to “give something back” to society if they have not done anything to take from it in a significant way, or that those who choose to do so on their own are entitled to special benefits and rewards for it. My opposition is based on a 180-degree disagreement in personal worldview, not a nitpick of detail.

“Well,” the reader might say, “that doesn’t sound very liberal to me! You call yourself a liberal and think such a thing?” Actually… no, I don’t call myself that. Not anymore. I don’t know how to define myself briefly, but I do know that I don’t seem to fit any current political label, and I am not going to waste time trying to fit one anymore. A couple of years ago, I might have jumped through all kinds of mental hoops to persuade my own mind that I could actually support this kind of bill rather than going with my true beliefs. However, I don’t work for any politician anymore, and I don’t have to do any sort of mind games with myself to support a given political orthodoxy or conform strongly with a political “tribe.” I’m still in favor of most liberal economic policy that involves large companies, and I am very strongly socially progressive, but on some points, I have found myself in rather strident opposition to the liberal viewpoint. My best friend might say that this means I am gradually returning to what I was as a teenager, a hardcore Objectivist Libertarian. I doubt that; I’m too much of an economic populist to return to laissez-faire support (at least while I remain out of the upper class), but I acknowledge that there are elements in the Objectivist philosophy that I was deeply attracted to at that age and have never truly given up, despite the mental contortions I performed in the intermediate years. One of them is the idea that there should be material rewards for a voluntary “good deed” or voluntary community service.

Flashback: Another Brick in the Objectivist Wall
My first sense that it was wrong to reward acts of volunteerism with material benefits came in middle school. I was #1 in my class, and I had gotten there and maintained that spot on the basis of academic merit alone. Then the school administration and certain teachers decided to reward students with bonus points, dropped and replaced bad grades, exam exemptions, and the like if the students could prove that they had performed some kind of community service. There was the holiday canned food drive for low-income families, a fine idea in and of itself, but tainted by the school’s policy of issuing academic rewards and bonuses to students based on the amount of food that they donated. There were the teachers who would award bonus points or free 100s to students who took part in particular events that occurred in the area. There were also the teachers who gave bonus points to students for participation in extracurricular activities that were school-sponsored but nonetheless had little to no relevance to classroom material. I had worked for my spot as the top student, and it galled me that the possibility existed for students to surpass me without putting in the same kind of work that I had. Additionally, there was a very strong factor of personal resentment in another policy that the school unofficially had: I was very active in academic competitions like the spelling bee, and with the exception of the science fair, I received no academic credit whatsoever for it, even when I won at high levels—usually not even exemption from subject-relevant homework that was assigned while I was competing.

The school was located in a very conservative area and probably mirrored the demographics of that area; however, to me as a teenager, these policies represented the very worst evils of “liberalism.” This school policy of promoting voluntary activities and issuing material academic rewards for “good deeds,” rewards that could theoretically change who became valedictorian and walked away with real material benefits in the form of increased scholarships, was what made me into an Objectivist. I can say that with absolute confidence. To me, it seemed that the school was purposely slighting and denigrating actual academic work in favor of “touchy-feely” activities that had nothing to do with what was actually supposed to be graded and rewarded/punished.

To this day, I really can’t say that my opinion has changed on this. I don’t think it’s fair for companies to reward employees for community service, either. I think that if an institution says that it is issuing rewards for a particular kind of work, then it should not issue that same kind of reward for any other type of work. Let the community-minded students and employees receive framed certificates, perhaps, but not academic or monetary rewards. These national service proposals offer real, material rewards for people who choose to participate. The participants get benefits such as cuts from their college bills (I am very strongly in favor of reduced tuition, but only on an academic basis when we are talking about public funds—let the private endowments do what they wish), “feet in the door” for coveted government jobs, or extra resumé cred. I am fully aware that the employment market is not exactly merit-based, but I still support the ideal of an intellect- and skill-based meritocracy.

Is It a Citizenship Responsibility or Not?
So it would seem that there is an impossible gulf between my views and the views of those who support this kind of bill. I simply don’t think that a national service bill is necessary as long as existing community-oriented organizations allow people to volunteer their time (or apply for paid work there, if the organization chooses). All that codifying it in law does is issue material rewards to those who do it. And this, I think, strongly contradicts something that adherents say in support, that there is a responsibility associated with citizenship to “give back” to the community, which most people supposedly fail to meet.

I disagree with the idea that most people fail to give back to the community, and I intend to explain why. However, let’s address the other part of that first. If it’s really a responsibility, why are we giving out special rewards for it? I don’t know of a large group of people getting rewarded for doing what they are supposed to do past about age six. If the answer is indeed a variation of the “offer a carrot” philosophy, that also invites the question of why. Would people not take part otherwise?

In perhaps the greatest mistake of my life, I accepted a grant for about $11,000 to pay for graduate expenses with the stipulation that I would work government jobs for two years after getting my Master’s degree. (It was a foolish thing to do because the program coordinator, who happened to have connections with the Bush White House, decided he didn’t care for my politics and cut me out of the program along with issuing a false and libelous statement about me, something that the contract said was fully within his rights to do. Little did I know that at the same time, Karl Rove and Alberto Gonzales were conducting a massive behind-the-scenes effort to stack the Department of Justice, the EPA, the intelligence agencies, and other government agencies with political allies, dismissing competent people with different politics and libeling them as well.) I entered this program because of the money and only the money—both the immediate money and the promise of one of those nice government jobs. How many other people did the same thing? I’d wager quite a few. My point is that there is a substantial part of the population who would enter a civil service program strictly because of these carrots, these material rewards, rather than any sense of citizen’s obligation or responsibility to society. If the purpose of the program is to promote such ethics as those, then is it really a good idea to have people there who are in it for mercenary purposes?

It sounds like cant, but really, if community service is indeed a responsibility of every single person, then virtue should be its own reward. I don’t think there is any need for a federally funded program to single out and reward anyone who happens to join up for whatever reason. If people feel the drive to participate in a cause and do good deeds, nonprofits exist all over the place, most of them desperately in need of help. Let the individual organizations decide whether to offer pay for the specific work performed. If it’s a case of actual payroll employment, then let the organization’s procedure for that go into effect.

The Unacknowledged Contributions
However, I cannot support any additional benefits and rewards. To do so would be to indirectly denigrate and even punish work that does not fall within the umbrella of legislated community service. This could include voluntary participation in private organizations, but the type of work that is least likely to be acknowledged and rewarded by an entity as immense as the U.S. government is individual work. If I decided, for example, to write a novel (a longstanding dream of mine), it would certainly enrich society and contribute to the community. That’s what art does. But it wouldn’t be “community service” according to the law. The same could be said of many, many other individual achievements that also happen to contribute to society. Many breakthroughs in science and technology as well as well-loved cultural treasures in art and philosophy are the work of individuals who acted alone. They contributed beyond measure to our world. In some cases they also brought great wealth to those who produced them, but not always. To go back momentarily to my high school experience, I think my participation in the National Spelling Bee could have contributed something to the local area by means of the news coverage of it. It might have excited interest in language and literacy in other people. A great many kinds of work can contribute to society and be “community service,” but they wouldn’t be legislated as such and wouldn’t get rewarded. That’s exactly what I witnessed in school.

At this point I think I should clarify something, because I do realize this is starting to sound like something straight out of Atlas Shrugged. While I happen to agree that most great contributions to society were brought about by talented people acting without ill-advised limitations, and therefore that making it easier for talented individuals to “do their thing” is one of the very best ideas of the philosophy of Ayn Rand, I cannot get on board with all of that ideology anymore. A good idea has been tainted to include people who take more than they give. I made hints of this in the first few paragraphs, but let me state it explicitly here. I do think that those individuals who have managed to profit greatly from society—who have enriched themselves in the business world, let’s say—have a responsibility to give something back, because so much of their life has been about taking. Bill Gates is an example of this, and with his philanthropic work, he is certainly giving back. (On the other hand, the executives at AIG are examples of takers who, with the exception of returning their bonuses to the government, have sucked the economy dry and aren’t giving a thing back.) But regular people tend to live their lives either in balance between giving and taking, or actually tend toward the giving side already. There are not that many people who are net takers, especially in a deep recession. This is because of what I have already discussed, how many different kinds of activity can contribute to social betterment. I don’t think that most people “owe” the community anything extra. I really don’t. If they choose to give more, that’s fine, but I do not think it is a responsibility or a debt. It’s—gasp!—volunteerism. What a novel thought, apparently. This is especially true for young people, who are targeted by the bill. We certainly haven’t had the time to be takers. We haven’t even had the time to establish ourselves securely. If anyone “owes” society anything, it is the group that has brought it to the abyss, not those who are going to be paying for all these bailouts and recovery projects.

I have a sister who volunteers with the animal shelter. She does not do it because she feels that she has somehow harmed animals, even indirectly, and feels an obligation to make up for “taking” something away from that cause in the past. She does it because she wants to do it. It is a cause that she believes in, not a penance for some kind of sin, even the classic activist’s “sin” of inaction. Activists of all kinds are usually very vocal, forthright, and evangelical in their causes. A lot of them do play the guilt card, trying to make people who are not involved in their particular causes feel bad about it. “If you aren’t part of the solution, you are part of the problem,” goes this very strongly black versus white, us versus them way of thinking. These (rather obnoxious) sorts of activists apparently really believe that people who are not actively working on their causes are automatically making the problem worse. They ignore the likelihood that those people are doing other things that do contribute positively to the world, even if the people themselves didn’t do such things with that intention. Sounds just like the idea that work doesn’t contribute to society unless it is officially sanctioned by legislation. The bill might well have been written by this kind of holier-than-thou activist, and the rhetoric of “giving back”—even the name of the House version of the bill, the “GIVE Act”—strongly suggests this mentality.

I do not know what the mental process was for each member of Congress who voted against the legislation. It may well have been something completely unrelated to the rationale that I have for opposing it. Considering that most of the “nay” votes were strongly in favor even of mandatory national service when George W. Bush was president, it could easily have been nothing other than sheer partisanship, the “Party of No” rearing its head once again. That would be unfortunate, but it wouldn’t surprise me. In any case, it looks as if the legislation will become the law of the land. I doubt, honestly, that there was ever much chance for it to fail on principled opposition. My position is probably not popular because a lot of people are aesthetically drawn to the idea of (someone else’s) performing civil service for the public good and won’t play devil’s advocate with the concept as I will. But let my view stand for the record.

1 Comment »

  1. Great post, I was opposed to the Give Act but had trouble articulating why. You summed it up nicely.

    Comment by Alasandra — March 29, 2009 @ 5:52 pm

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