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Fearless Philosophy For Free Minds: July 2008

Thursday, July 31, 2008

Want to Serve Your Country? Well, What’s Stopping You!

Time has an ongoing series which advocates the need for “voluntary” national service. In the magazine’s latest article by Managing Editor Richard Stengel, the author praises both John McCain and Barack Obama for their urging of Americans to “serve interests greater than self.”

It is a unique moment for the idea of national service. You have two presidential candidates who believe deeply in service and who have made it part of their core message to voters. You have millions of Americans who are yearning to be more involved in the world and in their communities. You have corporations and businesses that are making civic engagement a key part of their mission.

If “millions of Americans” wish to be “more involved” in service to others and “their communities” what’s stopping them? Do we really need a President McCain or President Obama to force “inspire” these Americans to serve their fellow Americans? Is their really a “volunteer” deficit?

In Stengel’s original article on this subject A Time to Serve he seems to suggest the opposite:

Polls show that while confidence in our democracy and our government is near an all-time low, volunteerism and civic participation since the '70s are near all-time highs. Political scientists are perplexed about this. If confidence is so low, why would people bother volunteering? The explanation is pretty simple. People, especially young people, think the government and the public sphere are broken, but they feel they can personally make a difference through community service.

I fail to see the problem here. If people do not have confidence in the government, this is a very good thing*! Ordinary Americans are helping others on their own volition, not because some politician told them to do so.

Despite this seemingly positive news, this isn’t enough for Stengel:

[T]he way to keep the Republic — is universal national service. No, not mandatory or compulsory service but service that is in our enlightened self-interest as a nation. We are at a historic junction; with the first open presidential election in more than a half-century, it is time for the next President to mine the desire that is out there for serving and create a program for universal national service that will be his — or her — legacy for decades to come. It is the simple but compelling idea that devoting a year or more to national service, whether military or civilian, should become a countrywide rite of passage, the common expectation and widespread experience of virtually every young American.

Am I missing something here? How does a president “persuade” people who otherwise would not be inclined to national service without using some form of coercion? Toward the end of the article, Stengel offers a 10-point plan on how the next president should implement a national service agenda:

1. Create a National-Service Baby Bond (a.k.a. forced wealth distribution)

2. Make National Service a Cabinet-Level Department (a.k.a. taking money from citizens to pay for another Bureaucracy)

3. Expand Existing National-Service Programs Like AmeriCorps and the National Senior Volunteer Corps

4. Create an Education Corps

5. Institute a Summer of Service (a.k.a. teenagers serving the government to learn that all great things come from government)

6. Build a Health Corps (a.k.a. “volunteers” helping low income people access government healthcare programs which they are not already taking advantage of such as SCHIP)

7. Launch a Green Corps (similar to FDR’s Civilian Conservation Corps but would improve infrastructure and combat climate change).

8. Recruit a Rapid-Response Reserve Corps (a.k.a. volunteers doing the job the National Guard traditionally does in the wake of natural disasters).

9. Start a National-Service Academy (a.k.a. a school to train government workers)

10. Create a Baby-Boomer Education Bond (a.k.a. forced wealth distribution).

In one way or another, every one of these proposals requires government to use force**. While this form of coercion is not as visible as directly “drafting” people into government service, make no mistake, coercion is still very much part of the equation.

To Time’s credit, the magazine did offer a counterpoint to Stengel’s article. Michael Kinsley calls B.S. on this whole notion of national service (particularly on the part of young people):

One of the comforts of middle age — a stage that the editor of TIME and I have both reached — is that you can start making demands on young people, safe in the knowledge that they won't apply to you. Having safely escaped the Vietnam era draft ourselves, we are overcome by the feeling that the next generation should not be so lucky. Many of these young folks are volunteering for socially beneficial work, and that's good. But it's not good enough. "Volunteerism" is so wonderful that every young person should have to do it.


I'm perfectly prepared to believe that today's young people are deplorable specimens, ignorant and ungrateful and in desperate need of discipline. Or I am also prepared to believe that they are about to burst with idealism like a piñata and only await somebody with a giant pin. But they aren't the only ones who could use a lesson about social obligation. What about grownups? Grownups, who still have some hope of collecting Social Security and Medicare before they go broke, who have enjoyed the explosion in house prices that make the prospect of home ownership so dim for the next generation; who allowed the government to run up a gargantuan national debt, were miraculously bailed out of that, and immediately allowed it to be run up a second time; who may well have gone to college when tuition was cheap and you didn't automatically graduate burdened by student loans. We are not in much of a position to start dreaming up lessons in social obligation for the kids.

As I pointed out in my last post, many people are in favor of “service” and “sacrifice” if it is being done by someone else. Kinsley also points out that the answer to serving the needs of others is good old fashioned Capitalism!***

Let’s be honest. If you really want to “serve your country/community/world,” again I ask you: What’s stopping you? Your level of service has not one thing to do with who occupies the White House at any given time.

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What is Your Life Worth?

No, I didn’t ask you about your net worth but what dollar value would you say that your life is worth to you. Most of us would not be able to come up with a figure or might say that putting an exact dollar amount on one individual’s life (especially one’s own) is impossible to quantify.

If you cannot come up with a figure no need to fear, the federal government has come up with a dollar value for your life on your behalf (isn’t that nice of our government?). Actually, the worth of an individual’s life varies from one government department to the next. The Associated Press reports that the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), the government agency which has the highest dollar figure for a human life, has dropped the value by $1 million to its current appraisal of $6.9 million(in today’s dollars).

Why is this important, aside from the immoral, collectivist, big government, notion that it is morally justified to sacrifice the few or the one for the good of the many? Well…nothing! As the AP article points out, government agencies make decisions based on this arbitrary figure:

Consider, for example, a hypothetical regulation that costs $18 billion to enforce but will prevent 2,500 deaths. At $7.8 million per person (the old figure), the lifesaving benefits outweigh the costs. But at $6.9 million per person, the rule costs more than the lives it saves, so it may not be adopted.

Putting aside the fact that many of the departments, programs, and regulations are completely unconstitutional to begin with, I find it very disturbing (but not at all surprising) that my life could be shrugged off if I find myself in too small of a class to “matter” to government bureaucrats. This is the ugly reality that altruist/collectivists such as Barack Obama and John McCain speak of idealistically when they call for Americans to “sacrifice for the good of the community” and “serve a cause higher than self.”

Many people find sacrifice is a wonderful and noble thing, particularly if someone else is offering the sacrifice. If Obama or McCain needs to sacrifice the life, liberty, or property of an individual to serve his political/policy desires, each is quite willing to make that sacrifice (what’s $6.9 million in the federal budget anyway?).

Unfortunately, the age of reason, self reliance, and individual liberty did not survive much longer than Paine, Jefferson, and Madison. Our anti-Western, Judeo-Christian, “mob rule,” culture has conditioned generation after generation of Americans to think this way. Children are taught in government schools and their churches that America is a democracy rather than a constitutional republic, the rule of men rather than the rule of law, and to put “God, family, and country” before self. Obama and McCain are only reflecting this sentiment.

Not that these same politicians are not willing to pander to vocal minorities for votes. Obama and McCain will consider every minority group but one: the smallest minority.

The smallest minority on earth is the individual. Those who deny individual rights cannot claim to be defenders of minorities.
-Ayn Rand

So what is my life worth to me? To quote John Galt (the protagonist of Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged) “I am the man who loves his life.” My life is not for sale because to me my life is priceless. There is no need for me to set a price for something for which no one has the ability to pay me.
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