Thursday, May 22, 2003

The Service You Owe

So, once again, we have a national service plan on the table (this time, proposed by Democrat John Kerry), and once again, libertarians dislike it. For instance, Jacob T. Levy, describing national service as "the bad idea that never dies," writes it off as an obviously outrageous imposition, "a basic signalling device as to whether someone thinks individuals belong to the state or vice-versa." And once again, as I've written before, the assumption is that the whole ball game boils down, as far as libertarian thinkers are concerned, to the individual vs. the state. In many, many ways the libertarian position is an exceptionally powerful one, but I've never been able to grasp it's problem with social duty. Basically, I fail to understand why on earth these questions should always be framed as a choice between "belonging" to oneself alone, or "belonging" to the government. Don't you also belong to a neighborhood, a community, a society, or at least a segment of it? If so, why is it so appalling to suggest that, just as the individual is constituted in part by the social continuity she emerges from, so does the individual have obligations and duties to that social context which is her own? In other words, why not establish, as Kerry suggests, a national/community service requirement for students who graduate from a nation's or a community's own high schools? The government provides many services to individuals, and individuals pay taxes to support the government; but does that fully exhaust all that is necessary for a well-run society, a healthy community, a liveable neighborhood? Why can't groups have a part in this process? It always seems to be the same complaint, again and again, whether you are talking about the draft or AmeriCorps or anything related: the government can't or shouldn't ask anything of me that doesn't arise from my own voluntary choice, premised upon my own individual calculation of benefit. To which I say: by dragging the government into it, you make into something it's not; you make it into a question of political liberty, when actually it should be a question of social obligation.

Of course, the response is usually that such communitarian language is all fluff, because in the end, it still is the state which does the asking, right? Two rejoinders: first, such a response assumes that there cannot possibly be a national community on whose behalf the state speaks. There is, of course, a large body of communitarian argument which insists exactly that point; the nation, these thinkers claim, can never be the proper recepient of authentical social, collective obligation, because the nation is too large/too diverse/too historically compromised to ever actually aspire to being a "community." But these arguments are not being fundamentally engaged by libertarian talk about the individual vs. the state, since they would probably expect their response to apply even if mandated service arose from a social entity which could claim "community" status (a state-wide draft? a municipal one?). Second, Jacob implies that nothing socially beneficial can come from the state's asking, that while such an arrangement might plausibly reflect civic republican virtues (which he eschews anyway), in can never aspire to "Tocquevillean civil society volunteerism" (which is, a guess, to be preferred). But on this point I beg to differ: there is much evidence (nicely summarized in this article by Theda Skocpol) that state involvement (and state mandates) is essential to just such civil-society-building-voluntarism. Very simply, she concludes, "the early American civic vitality that so entranced Alexis de Tocqueville was closely tied up with the representative institutions and centrally directed activity of a very distinctive national state." I don't see why it would be, or we should expect it to be, any different today.