April 22, 2002 -- President Bush has declared the fourth week of April to be National Volunteer Week. This is a follow-up to his call for all Americans to do two years of community service during their lifetimes, and his creation of the new federal USA Freedom program to pay volunteers and to encourage service. But should we all really rush out to man the ladles at the nearest soup kitchen? Is such service really good for America?
Let’s start by clarifying some moral confusion. The measure of our moral worth is not how much we give to others but rather to what extent we hold our own lives as our highest value and take responsibility for our lives. That standard requires us to set goals that will contribute most to our survival and well-being, and to create the means to attain those goals. It requires honesty, integrity, self-discipline, and fortitude in the face of self-destructive indulgences that distract us from our long-term happiness.
If more people lived by this standard, there would be little need for volunteers to help others. Each of us would earn our own way, support our own families, take pleasure from our own friends, and take care of our own needs. We owe our fellow citizens respect for their rights and freedom. We do not owe them a living.
Of course, there are good self-interested reasons for helping others in such a society. In the case of the September 11th terrorist attacks that murdered 3000 innocent people, we as individuals took it upon ourselves to make right an injustice, generously contributing a billion dollars to help the victims with whom we rightly sympathized. It’s also in our self-interest to live in a society with other independent, productive, and creative citizens, so we can exchange material goods and ideas with one another, share challenges and experiences, rejoice in the achievement of others, and have our own achievements recognized. To that end, we as individuals might help a poor but worthy student pay for college, or we might help others who suffer through unforeseen emergencies or circumstances, such as a serious illness. We might even help those who suffer through some fault of their own—for example, through the use of drugs or other irresponsible choices—if we judge that those individuals are trying to mend their ways.
So what can we say about the Bush program? To begin with, true volunteer efforts do not require the government to pay tax money to volunteers. And we can expect more federal coercion and extortion to force us to “volunteer.” As an indication of what’s to come, we already see that high school students are required to do service as a condition for graduation in Maryland.
Is it really a sign of moral health if millions of citizens must be mobilized, not to meet some emergency, but as a standing army of servants directed by government to deal with chronic problems, most caused by government to begin with? Volunteers would not need to tutor failing kids if government schools weren’t such failures.
The call for two years of service also implies that we earn our freedom with service to others. But we most emphatically do not. America was founded on the principle that we are endowed “with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness.” We should feel no guilt at all for spending those two years pursuing our own interests, and enjoying our own family and friends. Our own individual rational judgment, not a cultural obligation to “serve,” should determine if or when we help others.
The government welfare state helped create our current culture of moral irresponsibility. A federal bureaucracy to promote national service, and the failure to distinguish good and bad reasons for helping others, will make Americans servile and weak, further eroding the ethical infrastructure of our free republic. America needs a moral revival based on personal responsibility and rational self-interest that will leave fewer social ills for volunteers to correct.
Edward Hudgins is research director at the Heartland Institute and former director of advocacy and senior scholar at The Atlas Society.