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Column: Candidates' Definitions Of Service Limited, Troubling

This story was written by Daniel P. Robinson, Harvard Crimson

Over 60 million people volunteered in the United States last year, or over a quarter of the American populace. The US is also home to 7,500 hospitals, 18,000 nursing homes, a school system that is heavily understaffed and a military that is dangerously undermanned. But last Thursday, Sens. Barack Obama and John McCain said that not enough Americans volunteer, and,they claim,this is due to a lack of opportunities.

The candidates were speaking at a conference organized by ServiceNation, an organization that seeks to expand the role of national service in peoples lives. The timing of the event exactly seven years after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001 was strategic as well as symbolic. Those events inspired many Americans to volunteer, whether as members of the armed services, the search and rescue teams at the disaster sites or just in their own communities. The overwhelming surge of solidarity and self-sacrifice that followed the tragedy was channeled into an outpouring of service.

These are noble impulses, and those who devote part or all of their lives to helping others are to be commended. But in their speeches, the presidential candidates encouraged an ideal of service that is centered not on individuals giving back to their community, but on citizens serving their country. Obama and McCain both thought that it was the job of the federal government to provide opportunities for Americans to serve. In fact, the presumption of the entire event was that the federal government does not do enough to help Americans volunteer.

There are several problems with the way Obama and McCain conceive of service. One is that having the government decide whether a certain job constitutes service, and potentially helping to encourage it raises legal and constitutional issues. If someone serves through political activism, having the government support him or her could violate campaign finance law. If someone serves through religious work, it could raise issues of separation of church and state. If the government provides the same kind of support for these kinds of activities, it is discriminating against some of the most meaningful and valuable ways in which people serve their country.

Furthermore, if we have the government pay people to volunteer perhaps by making college more affordable for those who do, as Obama suggests then what they do is not service as such, but a job, paid for with taxpayer dollars. This also raises an important vagueness in the concept of service. What is the sharp distinction between jobs that are traditionally considered service, such as being a soldier, and jobs that are not, such as being a shop clerk? If that seems too clear, what about being a firefighter, police officer, doctor, sanitary worker or bureaucrat? Without an understanding of which jobs, when paid for, still constitute service, a vision of universal service is equivalent to a new federal work program.

Perhaps the most important issue is that this idea of service is inherently nationalistic. What its advocates desire is not service for its own sake, but service as a way to strengthen peoples ties to their government. Rick Stengel, the managing editor of Time magazine, lamented in an article last year in Time that volunteer rates are higher than they have ever been. Why is this a problem? Because it accompanies record low confidence in democracy and the American government. His concern is that [p]eople see volunteering not as a form of public service but as an antidote to it. Stengel wants truly national service, run by a bureaucracy within the federal government. The desire for this sort of program, rather than selfless individual service, is a solely nationalistic aim, and has nothing to do with a healthy service sector.

While McCain andObama mentioned the importance of other kinds of service during their speeches, they should realize that the more national and centralized service becomes, the less diversity there will be within it. Local and state governments, as well as religious groups and volunteer organizations, understand the specific needs and capabilities of their communities far better than Washington. If the next president succeeds in focusing the volunteer efforts of the nation in the federal government, then that service will become far less effective.