The dangerous moral premise underlying the call for national service

The recent debate on government budget cuts has resurfaced discussion on an enduring subject: national service. In a prominent example in Newsweek magazine, General Stanley McChrystal presents his vision of the role national service should take in American culture. He writes:

We have let the concept of service become dangerously narrow, often associated only with the military. This allows most Americans to avoid the sense of responsibility essential for us to care for our nation–and for each other. We expect and demand less of ourselves than we should.

The solution, we are told, is to work towards a culture in which selfless sacrifice for the nation is expected. On this view, the pursuit of our personal interests, like starting a business, building a dream house, or simply pursuing a successful career, takes a backseat to “America’s need.” In essence, this is a philosophy of “country before self.”

This idea raises important questions. Why are our individual concerns subordinate to those of the nation? What does it mean for “the nation” to have needs? What is it about a nation that holds a claim on our time and effort?

One argument is that the privilege of living in America should require something in return, that with individual rights come collective duties. As McChrystal puts it:

As important as those inalienable rights are, there are also inalienable responsibilities that we must accept and fulfill. Those responsibilities are wider than are often perceived or accepted. Just as we have allowed the term “service member” to apply solely to the military, we have allowed the obligations of citizenship to narrow.

The idea that citizenship involves duties to one’s country has long been considered. In 1967 philosopher Ayn Rand addressed the notion that “rights impose obligations.” She asks:

Obligations, to whom? –and imposed, by whom? Ideologically, that notion is worse than the evil it attempts to justify: it implies that rights are a gift from the state, and that a man has to buy them by offering something (his life) in return. Logically, that notion is a contradiction: since the only proper function of a government is to protect man’s rights, it cannot claim title to his life in exchange for that protection.

In order to establish the first nation in history founded on rights, the American revolutionaries wanted to establish a society without unchosen obligations, which had always been foisted upon them in the name of duty to the nation. They recognized that rights exist to protect life, not to extort it, and that we properly enter into obligations by choice, not by birth. The idea of “country before self” stands on a contradiction because rights exist to free us from the burden of unchosen obligations, not to impose them.

Besides, sacrificial obligations are counter to a healthy, wealthy society. Acting on self-interested motives, most Americans are brimming with worthwhile endeavors and value—values borne not out of duty or arbitrary responsibility, but from their importance to the people who pursue them. Going to college, building a career, saving up for a new car, or even watching a movie are rightfully done because they fulfill our individual goals and desires. And yet, these personal endeavors very often have a positive and wider impact. In other words, we need not justify pursuing our values by the benefit they confer to others, and yet these actions frequently do benefit others.

Many believe that a culture of people seeking their own interests is characterized by neglect and deterioration. But this ignores the enormous and amazing things Americans have achieved precisely by being the most self-interested people in the history of the world.

Consider the phenomenal success of Apple and the contribution it has brought to the lives of so many Americans. Steve Jobs was not motivated to serve his country and community as his primary concern when transforming Apple into a multi-billion dollar company. Rather, Jobs was interested in creating innovative and life-enhancing technology-and earning a massive paycheck to boot. And yet, his efforts have introduced billions of dollars into the American economy as well as an iPod or iPhone into the hands of millions of his fellow Americans. Had Jobs sacrificed his vision, instead enlisting in AmeriCorps, much of the technology we enjoy today would have remained a fantasy of science-fiction.

Steve Jobs accomplished something on a tremendous scale, but something we are all capable of. One does not need to be a billionaire to pursue one’s happiness and provide value to others in the process. Every day, electricians, soldiers, musicians, and countless others make possible our modern economy and all the relative luxuries it affords. And yet, the most successful among their ranks pursue their careers from personal, self-interested motives—not because they’re willing to toil for decades out of a duty to their nation. Had those millions of passionate individuals renounced their self-interested goals in order to put country first, we’d be missing out on the countless values created through their passion. Those who selfishly pursue their chosen endeavors, not those dedicating themselves to a vague “national service,” are truly responsible for shaping the world into a better place.

Country does not come before self. Our pursuit of happiness is an inalienable right and requires no sacrifice in return—indeed, it’s a contradiction to say that we should sacrifice our happiness to earn our right to pursue it. America thrives as a society of self-interest, not sacrifice. In the end, the greatest service we can do for our nation is the service we do for ourselves.

Jonathan Akin is an undergraduate studying philosophy and the history of math and science at St. John’s College. He lives in Santa Fe, New Mexico.

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