March 26, 2009
By Brian Brown
No: When government organizes public
service, it cripples public spirit
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.
Ironically, though, his notions of "public" and of "service" are
both heavily responsible for the very selfishness he wants to
Following his proposals would not only
fail to help the country -- it might even make things worse.
Far from "change," 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considered former notions of public service outdated.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, Wilson said, Washington
experts needed to coordinate them.
Yet that profound observer of America,
Alexis de Tocqueville, knew better. He had seen centralized
coordination of public service in pre-revolutionary France, and was
aware that it crippled 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 grew selfish and individualistic. Why help the homeless
man down the street when there was a government program for
In contrast, Tocqueville was amazed by
the vibrant public spirit in America, where there was no
centralized public service. 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
relationships with neighbors.
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.
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
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
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.
Brian Brown is Research Associate in the Center for American
Studies at the Heritage Foundation.
First Appeared in the Atlanta Journal Constitution
No: When government organizes public service, it cripples public spirit.
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