Barack Obama's "Call to Serve" speech made public service a major
theme of his campaign. In this speech, and in his "Blueprint for
Change," he gave two main reasons for this emphasis on public
service. The first is that there are many national problems with
which coordinated government volunteers could help. The second is
that the character of the country needs a change in favor of
selfless service instead of individualism and greed. He thus
proposes to make increasing public service--mobilizing America in a
new spirit of selflessness-- "a cause of my presidency."
But if Obama truly wishes to see the American people engaged in
real, effective public service, he must opt for genuine change.
Obama's Solution: Make It Bigger
Some of the President-elect's proposals to increase public
service are novel: Expanding programs for public service into such
emerging areas as public diplomacy and "green jobs"; using the
Internet to make the federal government a central figure in
connecting people with service opportunities; and increasing
government involvement in the nonprofit sector. But most of his
proposed plan is based on expanding what already exists. 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.
However, by merely mimicking the programs of the past, Obama's
proposals also repeat yesterday's mistakes:
- They encourage the wrong motivations for volunteering;
- They confuse government work with public service; and
- By centralizing control, they reduce the individual and
community empowerment that fosters public spiritedness.
Why Obama's Proposals Will Worsen the
Problem #1: They encourage the wrong
motivations for volunteering.
AmeriCorps "volunteers," for example, are paid, and some receive
housing. If they complete a term of service, they also receive
work-study funds or tuition stipends. In either case, the message
sent by the government is that people should participate in these
programs, but not for the kind of selfless reasons Obama wishes to
foster. Paid employees, by definition, are not volunteers. There is
a difference between the person who volunteers at the hospital
after a hard day's work and the doctor performing surgery. Both do
good, but only the first is a volunteer. The second is doing his
job. And it is volunteering, not jobs, that Obama claims to want to
increase with these programs.
Problem #2: They confuse government
work with public service.
America remains the most generous nation in the world. Nearly 84
million American adults volunteer an average of 3.6 hours every
week in private-sector volunteerism (a number the AmeriCorps
expansion would increase by only 0.2 percent). Yet Obama has argued
that AmeriCorps "turns away tens of thousands of applicants a year
because of limited funding," as though those people were then
unable to serve their communities or their country.
This implication highlights the real philosophical and practical
significance of many of the federal service programs: Participants
in these programs do not work directly for their communities--they
work for federal bureaucracies. This fact reflects the early 20th
century Progressives' idea of serving "the public," a nebulous term
personified by government bureaucrats. In such a world, the only
necessary relationship for public service is that between the
individual and the state.
Yet in truth, "the public" is a meaningless term if it does not,
first and foremost, encompass the families, neighbors, and
institutions that make up one's local community. Obama's program
detaches the idea of public service from the people it is supposed
to benefit. Government "volunteers" are accountable to bureaucrats
rather than neighbors and local institutions. Bureaucracies do not
foster community or discourage selfish individualism--relationships
Problem #3: They centralize control
and thus reduce the individual and community empowerment that
fosters public spiritedness.
This divorce between community and "public" service has very
practical consequences: Obama will increase the administrative
centralization of the pertinent programs, apparently running as
much public service as possible under the supervision of the
federal government. This leaves communities with even less control
over their own affairs than they had under the Bush and Clinton
versions of the programs. Such federal control does not empower
citizens and communities to improve their conditions, since the new
tools for any such accomplishments remain under the control of the
In fact, such a system can actually promote selfish
individualism by robbing the individual of a meaningful role in his
environment. Alexis de Tocqueville described what happened to
18th-century European nations a generation or two after the
government had successfully subsumed local responsibilities and
relationships in this way:
It never occurred to anyone that any large-scale enterprise
could be put through successfully without the intervention of the
The inhabitant considers himself a kind of colonist, indifferent
to the destiny of the place he inhabits. ... The fortune of his
village, the policing of his street, the fate of his church and of
his presbytery do not touch him; he thinks that all these things do
not concern him in any fashion and that they belong to a powerful
foreigner called the government.
Tocqueville insightfully pointed out that the result of this
state of affairs was the deterioration of local relationships,
interdependency, and an understanding of personal responsibility to
one's community--the very virtues Obama says he wants reinstated.
Tellingly, this occurred despite the government's provision of much
the same kind of "opportunities" Obama believes are needed today.
People, Not Programs
Obama has a great opportunity to make a real change by using his
popularity to motivate people to serve. But he should do so by
urging them to participate in actual volunteer work in their
communities. He should resist the urge to expand social control
and instead unleash the civic force that is the American citizen.
Real volunteers invest in others' lives because they want to
serve--not because they want money, a national esprit de
corps, or participation in national programs. That spirit of
charity cannot be fostered in a country where paid government work
is the measure of a good citizen.
Brian Brown is Research Associate in
the Center for American Studies at the Heritage Foundation.
Alexis de Tocqueville, The Old Regime and
the Revolution, trans. Stuart Gilbert (New York: Anchor Books,
1983), pp. 69-70.
Alexis de Tocqueville, Democracy in
America, trans. and ed. Harvey Mansfield and Delba Winthrop
(Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2000), p. 88.
Tocqueville, The Old Regime and the
Revolution, p. 34.