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National Service: An Immoral Ideal

HandcuffsThis spring the President signed into law The Edward M. Kennedy Serve America Act. You should pay special attention to this law because much of it specifically targets young adults. Secondary schools, for example, are offered federal funds in exchange for developing their “service-learning” curricula, encouraging more high schools nationwide to develop service requirements. Under such programs, while studying, taking the SATs, and pouring energy into extra-curricular activities or part-time jobs, increasing numbers of students will also have to perform mandatory service.

And this policy will not be limited to high schools. Service requirements will also be instituted at an increasing number of universities as federal funds from this bill entice them to create or expand their own service initiatives. Because the bill encourages integrating “service-learning” into the curriculum, many universities will develop academic programs dedicated to inculcating a service mentality. In addition, students will be encouraged to work in a “Summer of Service” and to make longer commitments to Americorps.

What do all these initiatives mean to you? They mean more than just spending a summer in a soup kitchen or a year in a South American village, although these are not small matters. Many students need that time to work to pay down their students loans or to take summer classes. Should such requirements be instituted at your school, you may find yourself torn between doing what’s best for your scholarship, career, family, or finances—and giving one of these up to fulfill a service requirement.

And yet this new law has been hailed as a great example of bipartisanship because across the political spectrum there is a consensus that Americans, especially young Americans, should be willing to serve, to do more for others. In other words, everyone seems to agree that you have an obligation to sacrifice for others. But do you? And should the government be forcing you to do so?

Today many Americans accept such a duty and believe that making others one’s primary focus in life is noble. According to this view, you should focus not on the highest pinnacle you can achieve or what brings you the greatest fulfillment, but on how you can best serve others. Following this premise, service programs aim to harness and exploit the virtues of youth—energy, idealism, motivation, and passion—by means of yoking them to the burden of everyone on the planet who has an “unmet human need.” No amount of energy or resources is enough to fill this yawning abyss, and the consequence of such a system will be the sapping of virtue and ability.

It will be the best in you that will be exploited, and it will be the best of you that will be the most harmed. Today, one can do amazing things at a very young age; those of you who have a drive to learn, to create, to produce, to innovate—you will lose the most under this system. Not only because of the hours, weeks, or years that may be stolen, but because of something irreplaceable that may go with them—that benevolent feeling of being in control of your own path.

When you are forced to relinquish your time for service requirements, you’re being told that your life doesn’t really belong to you. Your hobbies, friends, and career aspirations all must take a back seat to unchosen obligations. Those who are tempted to argue that young people having less time for personal interests is not a big deal, or who attempt to justify national service initiatives by saying that some get a value from such work are ignoring the basic principle. It is fine that some people choose to do a bit of volunteering, but that cannot justify forcing everyone to do so. Each individual should have the freedom to decide to what he devotes his time and energy.

This attempt to conscript the lives of young Americans is the proposal of politicians who believe they are better qualified to decide how you spend your time than you are—and that they have the right to do it. But the purpose of government is to protect our rights, not to decree by legislative vote how we spend our time or what morals we should adopt in our private lives. Accepting service as the ideal will damage the lives of young people while simultaneously undermining the proper moral foundation of America: the right of each individual to make his own life and happiness his primary concern.

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