March 26, 2009

March 26, 2009 | Commentary on Political Thought

Does the U.S. Need a New Call to Public Service? Two Views

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 eradicate.

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a century ago among intellectual elites such as Woodrow Wilson, who considered former notions of public service outdated.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

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 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 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.

About the Author

First Appeared in the Atlanta Journal Constitution