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February 3, 2009

The Paradox of Public Service

By

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popular a century ago among intellectual elites such as Woodrow Wilson, who considered former notions of public service outdated.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 programs.

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 of service.

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)

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