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Why ‘national service’ is misguided nationalism

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Earlier this week two presidential candidates made comments that how nationalism is dominating American politics.

The first came when South Bend mayor Pete Buttigieg told Rachel Maddow “national service will become one of the themes of [my] 2020 campaign.” He said he hopes to “make it, if not legally obligatory, then a social norm.”

This in itself is not all that surprising since promoting national service is part of the Democrat Party platform:

We believe in the power of national service to solve problems and break down barriers by bringing people of all backgrounds together in common purpose. National service expands opportunity for people across America, strengthening our communities and our country. And those who serve earn education awards that they can use for college while building valuable work skills. We will support and strengthen AmeriCorps with the goal that every American who wants to participate in full-time national service will have the opportunity to do so.

(NB: Buttigieg seems to differ from his party’s platform in that he would include military service under the rubric of “national service.”)

The second example came when Beto O’Rourke, another presidential candidate, released his tax returns and revealed that in 2017 he had donated $1,166 to charity, or about 0.3 percent of his adjusted gross yearly income of $366,455. When asked by a voter about his apparent stinginess, he replied that his public service is his real contribution. “I’ve served in public office since 2005, I do my best to contribute to the success of my community, of my state, and now of my country,” O’Rourke said.

He also added, “But I’ll tell you I’m doing everything I can right now, spending this time with you, not with our kiddos, not back home in El Paso, because I want to sacrifice everything to make sure that meet this moment of truth with everything that we’ve got.”

We shouldn’t judge O’Rourke unfairly. What a person gives to charity should be between them and God (and maybe their tax accountant). Also, he’s not completely wrong: giving one’s time and energy to help those in need is often as valid as making a financial contribution.

Where O’Rourke errs is in thinking that his serving in public office is a special form of service to the nation. Government work can certainly contribute to the common good, and should not be discounted. But the idea that we can best serve our neighbor through serving the government—whether in Congress as O’Rourke suggests or through something like Americorp, which Buttigieg implies—is a terrible idea rooted in misguided nationalism.

Unfortunately, they are not alone. Suggestions that we implement full-time national service for the young are frequently made by honorable people, such as former Army Gen. Stanley McChrystal and the late William F. Buckley, Jr. (who wrote a book outlining his proposal). What such people often miss is the way that in a free society there are better ways for us to serve our country and our neighbors.

For example, Chad W. Seagren, who earned a PhD in economics from George Mason University and holds the rank of major in the Marine Corps, explains why participation in the division of labor serves society:

The market so readily provides us with products we desire that we often overlook the crucial role that service plays in our lives. The fact that the shelves of your local grocery store are consistently stocked with milk surprises no one. But the process that brings milk from the dairy to your local retailer is incredibly complex and requires the cooperation of millions of individuals.

This process not only succeeds in bringing milk and myriad other products to the masses, but also, in the last 300 years, has raised the standard of living to heights that were unimaginable only a few generations ago. In industrialized countries, it has eliminated abject poverty and starvation. It has greatly increased the availability and quality of medical care, vastly extending life spans. Don Boudreaux, an economics professor at George Mason University, regularly points out the seemingly mundane, but ultimately remarkable, ways in which the capitalist market has improved the environment for humans. The free market is responsible for the wide availability of housing structures to protect people from the elements; climate control such as heating and air conditioning; indoor plumbing; personal hygiene items such as soap and shampoo; and appliances that allow for the safe and clean storage of food, to name just a few. And contrary to popular belief, the market actually enables people to care for the environment, a luxury that becomes attainable only when societies become sufficiently wealthy.

The market is so integral to our relationships with other individuals in society and so effectively provides both necessities and luxuries that it is easy to overlook the extent to which people depend on it. Similarly, few realize the contributions that millions of people make every day to this essential social institution.

On the surface it may seem like Seagren is referring to something completely different from national service. And in a sense, he is. Seagren is talking about how the markets provide ways to serve the needs and interests of our neighbors in a direct manner by, as Adam Smith would say, serving our own self-interest.

What supporters of national service are saying is that we should be coerced or required to subsume our self-interest (at least for a year) in order, as Buttigieg says, to strengthen our nation’s “social cohesion.” The implication is that the best, and perhaps only, way to accomplish this goal is through a policy of government-directed volunteerism. While the Democrats would shrink from the label, what they are promoting is just another form of nationalism. Nationalism requires that the individuals trade some of their liberties not for order or freedom but for the good of the nation. And this always—always—requires the coercive use of state power.

What America needs is not more nationalism or a government-led national service. What we need is a stronger commitment to the patriotic ideal that we serve America best by putting God and neighbor ahead of government and nation.


Note: I am not against volunteering in a way that serves one’s community or against serving in the armed forces. I myself served for 15 years in the Marines and have volunteered for various charities. What I oppose is using “national service” primarily to achieve nationalistic social goals (e.g., “social cohesion”) rather than for the sake of protecting our nation or serving those in need. I’m also against the idea that serving in Americorp or the Peace Corps is a similar form of “national service” as serving in the Army or Marine Corps. While all are worthy, they are not remotely equivalent.

Image source: Wikimedia

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Joe Carter Joe Carter is a Senior Editor at the Acton Institute. Joe also serves as an editor at the The Gospel Coalition, a communications specialist for the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention, and as an adjunct professor of journalism at Patrick Henry College. He is the editor of the NIV Lifehacks Bible and co-author of How to Argue like Jesus: Learning Persuasion from History's Greatest Communicator (Crossway).

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