Friday, September 05, 2008

Community Service

Jim Lindgren at The Volokh Conspiracy has some interesting posts which consider what Obama meant when he stated in his July 2, 2008 speech that:

We cannot continue to rely only on our military in order to achieve the national security objectives that we've set. We've got to have a civilian national security force that's just as powerful, just as strong, just as well-funded.

Lindgren suggests that the "civilian national security force" comes from Obama's "unprecedented plans for universal community service for young people and for hugely increased funding for a myriad of voluntary service programs for the rest of us." The highlights seem to be:

- 50 hours per year of mandatory community service for middle and high school children.

- a $4,000 yearly tax credit toward college tuition in exchange for 100 hours per year of community service for 4 years.

- converting work-study jobs into serve-study jobs.

- forming additional service corps, doubling Peace Corps, tripling AmeriCorps.

The issues which popped up at VC (which tends libertarian) include concern over the government's inefficiency, logistics, reinforcing the cycle government dependency, defining what is and what is not "community service", ensuring effective service, and generally mandating or coercing good behavior.

I found that last one to be particularly interesting. The argument for the children's program seems to be that since the fed already mandates educational curriculum, and since community service is generally regarded as good (some private schools or organizations already require it), why would federally mandating community service be any different?

But if it is acceptable, what other good behavior should be mandated? How about giving blood? Is there a limit? And if it is good for children, why not mandate it for adults as well? What are the criteria for such mandates?

What do you folks think? Is this a good or a bad idea? Is it something worth trying?



MarkC said...

I may engage Obama's suggestion at a later time, but what interests me most about this is the conversation that went on at the VC blog, and which you summarized here. It runs along very familiar lines, and can be summarized thus.

Idea A is suggested.

Response 1: We can't do that... that's essentially the same thing as B, which we all agree is bad. If we do A, why wouldn't we do B? It wouldn't be consistent.

Response 2: Of course we can do that... it's essentially the same thing as C, which we all agree is good. If we are willing to do C, why wouldn't we do A as well? It wouldn't be consistent not to.

These responses are generally accompanied by somewhat-veiled personal insults toward people who would be stupid enough or blind enough to disagree with the "obvious" position.

They also, almost without exception, completely ignore the essence of the point being made by the other side. Both sides shout their arguments (which are internally consistent), without directly engaging the argument from the other side.

This results in a very pointless, heated, never-ending discussion.

In this case, it seems to me that looked at from one perspective, Obama's suggestion is very much like an extension of public education (which nobody in the discussion suggested getting rid of). It is also very much like mandating that people give blood (which nobody in the discussion recommended doing). Which analogy should be definitive?

I really don't know... but I know that anyone trying to use one of those analogs should be required to directly explain why the other analog is not pertinent. Ignoring the other position just results in pointless and divisive discussions.


MamasBoy said...

At first glance, I like most of the ideas being proposed. I would be concerned, though, that Obama would make people choose from a list of organizations that excludes religious groups that keep their identity. He has made it clear that he wants to eliminate the ability of faith based charities accepting government through the faith based initiative to hire based on religious principles.

I'm also a bit concerned when he says that he wants these groups to be just as well funded as the military. That would be incredibly expensive, and I don't see where the money would come from. Perhaps it's just rhetoric. I can't imagine a world where volunteering is "just as powerful" as a military. Raw military power is the only thing that has kept NATO countries out of war with Russia. It is incredibly expensive to maintain a serious military option, and I don't see that changing anytime soon.

Assuming those concerns are addressed adequately, I think those are good ideas overall. Our society has become incredibly narcissistic. I think that requiring service and expanding those opportunities would help society develop greater virtue. There are always concerns about the quality of work you get when people are forced to do something they don't want to do, but I think that overall the benefits would probably outweigh the negatives.


Kevin said...


Good observations. Did you see Orin Kerr's recent post on a prototypical VC exchange? VC Commenters On Apples and Oranges. Cracked me up. :)

It's sad to see people talk past each other. And it seems to happen a lot in politics, which is even sadder and more frustrating since it impacts everyone and it can even seem intentional for political gain. That's probably part of what led me to post it here for comments. I also just like to share the ones I find difficult. :)

To be fair, I think some of the VC commenters were trying to narrow down their point of contention by the end, it is just a difficult topic which tests the complex and hazy value of liberty weighed against other, perhaps clearer, good. Plus, it gets at the "proper" role of the federal government, which, on a libertarian blawg, can be so drastically different from its current role as to seem unrealistic to argue.

I think the closest I saw to their narrowing their disagreement focused upon whether the fed's job should be to maximize good or to minimize coercion. At least, that seems to be a premise that fundamentally diverges lines of thought.


Kevin said...


Good points. Thanks for bringing up funding; that is a significant factor that I forgot to mention.

I agree that federally defining "community service" is a problem for me, too. Do you think that federal control would tend to shift charitable service away from whatever is not covered by the federal rules?

I get the sense that no matter the definition, there will be holes -- either loopholes within the definition that probably shouldn't count as service, or needs outside the definition which become more starved for attention as a result.

You struck upon what makes this difficult for me, namely that serving others often builds character and a better community. My current sticking point is, if that is true and we generally agree upon that, why would we need the federal government to enforce it? In other words, I'd ideally like to see the local communities choose it for themselves rather than see it controlled from afar.

On the other hand, to the extent that the fed is in a unique position to facilitate such activities, why not involve it? The arguments against this seems to revolve around the general dangers and inefficiencies of bigger government, which seem at once both valid and vague.


MamasBoy said...

"Do you think that federal control would tend to shift charitable service away from whatever is not covered by the federal rules?"

Yes, there is definitely a potential to shift charitable service away from charities that don't count toward graduation. There is also the potential to cultivate massive numbers of youth for political causes sympathetic to one party or another. In some ways, this $4k for 100 hours project could be one way to get youth hooked on volunteering for causes while they are still under the influence of a liberal university establishment. Personally, that doesn't bother me too much, but it should be noted and signs of bias in screening qualifying organizations should be checked.

You are certainly correct that, ideally, local communities would choose this for themselves. How does one define local community, though? At this point, only parents have the authority to mandate anything. Perhaps that is best.

Perhaps the point of any school requirement should be to introduce the kid to service activities, rather than make it a major part of their life for a year. It would probably be an easier sell if there were less hours and the goal was merely introduction rather than indoctrination. In that respect, 50 hours is probably excessive and should be reduced to somewhere between 3 and 10.

I doubt this idea will fly in America because there are too many libertarian tendencies among Americans. To mandate service is to legislate morality. It goes beyond doing no harm, to loving one's neighbor. Personally, I don't have a problem with that, but too many American's would have reservations to get this bird off the ground.

Personally, I don't see a difference between the serve-study jobs and Americorps, so that seems like a much easier sell. People can still access normal work study funds if they choose to do so. It would be optional and alternatives to access federal grants would still exist in the form of work-study programs.