February 3, 2009
By Brian Brown
What if public service made you more selfish? It's a
counterintuitive notion, to be sure. President Barack Obama, after
all, has promised to make public service 'a cause of my presidency'
to help get the country back on its feet. He started things off
with a national day of service, and he has many other organized
programs on deck. Ironically, though, his notions of 'public' and
of 'service' are both heavily responsible for the very selfishness
he wants to eradicate.
Thus, following his proposals would not only fail to help the
country - it might even make things worse.
Obama's concept of "the public" dates back to the French
Revolution and was popular a century ago among intellectual elites
such as Woodrow Wilson, who considered former notions of public
service outdated. To unleash the energies of the American people in
such a complex world, Wilson insisted, experts in Washington needed
to coordinate them.
Yet that profound observer of early America, Alexis de
Tocqueville, knew better. He had seen such centralized coordination
of public service in pre-revolutionary France, and was aware that
it crippled any kind of substantive public spirit. Why? Because
when everything was run by "a powerful foreigner called the
government," Frenchmen saw no need for community at all.
Service was no longer a normal part of their everyday lives.
Instead of aiding his neighbors when problems arose, the typical
Frenchman waited for government to clean up the mess - and hence
grew selfish and individualistic. Why help the homeless man down
the street when there was a government program for that?
In contrast, Tocqueville was amazed by the vibrant public
spirit in America, where there was no centralized public service at
all. An American believed that his town was his responsibility, and
worked hard to make it better - not because of some airy devotion
to "the public," but because he had real relationships with his
neighbors. These relationships were both necessary (since there was
no government program to replace them) and practical.
A government bureaucrat might have grand plans for solving the
problems of mankind. But compared with the average citizen, he was
powerless to grant meaningful compassion to a real person in need.
Even though the American township was sometimes less efficient than
the French bureaucracy, it made for greater public spirit, which
Tocqueville believed worked better in the long run.
Though Wilson admired the public spirit of early America, he
believed that the needs of the modern world required a new
approach. Unlike Tocqueville, who thought a large, diverse country
was too complex for bureaucrats, Wilson thought it was too complex
for its citizens. He wanted his fellow professors running the whole
country, rather than small groups of Americans running their little
parts of it. Over the last century, America has had a chance to see
who was right - Tocqueville or Wilson.
Today, another professor is president, and he believes the
answer is Wilson. Yet despite a barrage of Wilsonian public service
programs from Presidents Franklin Roosevelt, Lyndon Johnson, Bill
Clinton and George W. Bush, the problems Obama identifies are
largely the same problems Wilson saw - too little public spirit,
and too little government organizing it.
The solution, Obama believes, is taking those same programs and
making them bigger. He wants to increase AmeriCorps from 75,000 to
250,000 workers, the Peace Corps to 16,000 and YouthBuild to
50,000. He wants to revive President Bill Clinton's idea of giving
college students a tuition break for participation in such
programs, to reallocate 25 percent of work-study funds to favor
public-service jobs, and to expand high school service-learning
But if these programs, in so many generations, haven't
solved the problems, why would they do so now? In reality,
Tocqueville was right - public spiritedness is best fostered
through real responsibilities in a local community. Putting people
in full-time government programs sends the message that public
service isn't for everyone, and paying them defeats the whole idea
Just as in pre-revolutionary France, when government bureaucracy
replaces community commitment as the means of service, service will
decline. And when paid government work is the measure of a good
citizen, a lot more paid government work will be needed.
Brian Brown is Research Associate in the Center for American
Studies at the Heritage Foundation.
First Appeared in the St. Paul Pioneer Press(MN)
What if public service made you more selfish? It's a counterintuitive notion, to be sure. President Barack Obama, after all, has promised to make public service 'a cause of my presidency' to help get the country back on its feet. He started things off with a national day of service, and he has many other organized programs on deck. Ironically, though, his notions of 'public' and of 'service' are both heavily responsible for the very selfishness he wants to eradicate.
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