In a speech delivered this July to students at the University of Colorado, then-Sen. Barack Obama outlined his vision for a "new era of service" in the United States. "We need your service, right now, at this moment - our moment - in history," Obama said. "I'm not going to tell you what your role should be; that's for you to discover. But I am going to ask you to play your part; ask you to stand up; ask you to put your foot firmly into the current of history." As a good citizen, I will answer that call. I will stand up for national service - but my feet will be firmly athwart the current of history, and I will be yelling 'Stop!'
During his presidential campaign, then-Sen. Obama exhorted Americans to commit themselves to public service. National service, he declared, "will be a central cause of my presidency." To this end, his policy platform suggests a huge increase in government-sponsored volunteer programs. Under the Obama administration, the federal government will not just sponsor the Peace Corps and AmeriCorps, but expand or create a passel of new corps, including "Classroom Corps," "Health Corps," "Clean Energy Corps," "Veterans Corps," "Homeland Security Corps," "Senior Corps," "Global Energy Corps," and "Green Job Corps." Don't worry: he didn't forget to include college students. Under Obama's plan, every Wildcat who completes 100 hours of community service will be able to claim a $4,000 tax credit to offset tuition.
For most students, Obama's offer will be hard to refuse. After all, where else can you earn $40 per hour for picking up trash or sorting canned food? This wage is double what most graduates will earn once they leave college, so only the very wealthiest students will be able to turn it down without paying a hefty opportunity cost. For most folks, the credit will go a long way - paying off both federal taxes and a portion of tuition. What's not to like?
For one thing, there are common sense objections to national service. First, it's bad fiscal policy. With unemployment at 6.5 percent and rising, why should government pay unskilled youngsters inflated wages to do jobs that plenty of hard-up workers would be willing to take at $25, $10, or even $6.75 an hour? Sure, the plan is technically a tax credit - but since most students pay well under $4,000 in federal taxes, they would receive government checks. The $10 billion needed for the program will have to come from somewhere.
Second, it could have harmful unintended consequences. Big, broad increases in student aid drive tuition inflation, which might make college more expensive. Considering the last few years of tuition increases at UA, it should be no surprise if President Shelton and the Regents try to claim their share.
Finally, Americans already serve and contribute to their communities. Each year, Americans donate over $300 billion to charity and spend 8 billion hours volunteering in churches, schools, and nonprofits. We are far and away the most generous nation in the world - we just happen to prefer private philanthropy to volunteerism by presidential fiat.
But most champions of national service care more about moral arguments. Service, they say, will foster a sense of civic-mindedness, or encourage us to "serve a common purpose." This thinking can be traced back at least to President Kennedy's now-hackneyed inaugural entreaty to "ask not what your country can do for you - ask what you can do for your country." But, as Milton Friedman once noted, "Neither half of the statement expresses a relation between the citizen and his government that is worthy of the ideals of free men in a free society."
One of the great milestones along the road from serfdom to modern liberal democracy was the right to pay taxes in money rather than labor. Sometime nea the end of the Middle Ages, vassals in England stopped paying their feudal lords in hours mucking around in potato fields and started paying in cash. Eventually everyone earned the right to support the commonwealth by chipping in their bit, and the freedom to choose their own jobs and live their own lives without slaving for the state.
But a national service plan is a subtle inversion of this relationship, which puts corve labor back on the table. Pay up, or get to work! Plus, it's not hard to imagine voluntary service becoming universal service. Obama has said before that he'd like to "require" rather than "encourage" national service, which would be, as Northwestern law professor James Lindgren puts it, "a basic assault on Anglo-American liberty." Not to mention wholly unconstitutional under the 13th amendment.
As much as I'd love to get out of paying taxes, Obama's national service refund is one credit I won't claim come April. The nation that I serve by paying taxes and obeying the law is a collection of free men, not a master to obey - even at $40 an hour.