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Barack Obama’s “America [Must] Serve” Plan

Scott Shields
Campaign For Liberty
March 19, 2010

Throughout Barack Obama’s campaign for president, he expressed his desire to increase community service in America. He outlined his plan, called “America Serves,” on change.gov, the website that provided details of his presidential agenda and transition. A screen-shot of America Serves is still available at www.politicallore. com/images/change.jpg.

President Obama’s plan for community service is now described as a part of the White House’s agenda, and is outlined at http://www.whitehouse.gov/agenda/service.

The introductory paragraph for America Serves on the original presidential transition website read as follows:

When you choose to serve — whether it is your nation, your community or simply your neighborhood — you are connected to that fundamental American ideal that we want life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness not just for ourselves, but for all Americans. That’s why it’s called the American dream.

I also am a strong believer in community service, and I volunteer my time for multiple causes. (One could argue that “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness” is not simply an American ideal, but that the Founding Fathers believed the Creator endowed all men with those rights, as proclaimed in the Declaration of Independence, but that may be splitting hairs.)

After that lofty introduction, however, details for Obama’s plan are listed. Details that, when analyzed, are not so inspiring; nor would the Founding Fathers be thrilled that their words were associated with it. President Obama informs us that he will “call on” Americans to serve. In Obama’s world, however, “call on” does not mean “ask” — it means “require.”

Children will be “required” to give 50 hours of community “service” in middle school and high school. An “energy-focused” youth-jobs program will “provide disadvantaged youth with … getting practical experience in fast-growing career fields.”

My immediate thought is that maybe — just maybe — I might have a better sense of whether my preteen or teenage child should be performing community service, or whether he might have other needs that require time spent elsewhere. Maybe I’ve had to hire a tutor to help him, or maybe he needs to watch a younger sibling after school. Maybe we have only one car and have limited ability to take him to and from the place of community service.

Regardless of the circumstances, I do not want the government reaching into our home and giving us another mandate about how to raise children.
College conscripts

One section of the America Serves plan indicates that President Obama will “require” 100 hours of service in college. Like many of the statements candidate Obama made and President Obama has made, it is not quite true. College students will actually be required to give 100 hours per year of college. A student who attends four years of college (the most common duration) will have a burden of 400 hours.

In exchange for the 100-hours-per-year commitment, President Obama proposes an American Opportunity Tax Credit of $4,000 a year.

A tax credit is a curious compensation vehicle for college students because the vast majority do not generate sufficient income to take full — or even partial — advantage of that tax credit. Perhaps he envisions that the tax credit will carry forward for future years, but is that not simply a payment for services? And how can a program be called “public service” when the “service” is required and is compensated? I would like to know how that differs from requiring every college student to be a federal-government employee.

But the federal government’s intervention into college and universities does not end with mandatory conscription of every student. America Serves also calls for “at least” 25 percent of College Work-Study funds to “support public-service opportunities instead of jobs in dining halls and libraries.” [Emphasis mine.]

The height of arrogance, but typical. The government is, apparently, not only entitled to intervene in the operations of a university, but also feels that at least 25 percent of work-study jobs are simply not needed. After all, colleges don’t need fully staffed dining facilities and libraries, do they? Or, perhaps, those jobs really are needed — in which case the colleges will simply have to hire workers to replace the work-study students the government has decreed should not be toiling in demeaning positions in cafeterias and libraries.

Retiring Americans will also be “engaged” to participate in America Serves. (The language is unclear whether “engaged” means “invited to volunteer” or is Obama-speak and participation will be mandatory.)

Note, also, that referring to “retiring” (not “retired”) Americans leaves open the possibility of similarly conscripting those Americans who may still be working full-time, raising children, supporting their parents, et cetera. After all, many “retiring” Americans are looking to at least 15 years of working before being eligible for Social Security benefits. (Wouldn’t paying Social Security taxes be considered “serving your community”?)
Slavery is not freedom

Thus, President Obama manages to invoke the lofty principles of the Declaration of Independence (“life, liberty, pursuit of happiness”) and infuse them with the exact opposite meaning: mandatory government labor. This written sleight-of-hand is a clever — though Orwellian — act of commingling the idea of forced labor and the warm glow of patriotism and humanity. Nevertheless, it will take a more profound man of letters to convince me that forced labor promotes life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.

And forced labor is what it is. For how else do you refer to mandatory community service? Sure, Obama may declare that “your” community service could be configured how you want — if you’re a college student in a pre-med program, for example, you could serve in a hospital. If you are a high-school student and want to work with your hands, you could serve with a carpenter.

But what if your schedule is jam-packed with school, sports, and a paid part-time job? What activity will you curtail to meet your “civic duty”?

And what if someone refuses to participate in America Serves? Saying “no” to the government is not like saying “no” to a boss or to a teacher; it is not like saying “no” when asked to volunteer your time to a cause or an organization. Sure, saying “no” to a boss or teacher has negative consequences, but saying “no” to the government is almost never an option. (If you doubt that, try saying “no” to the IRS, a judge, or a police officer.) Having a monopoly on legalized violence means never having to accept “no” for an answer — whether or not it is unfair to the citizen.

Most galling of all Obama thinks he and the government have a right to take decision-making out of students’, parents’, and professionals’ hands, and to insist that the government has a claim on their time because it knows best. Many people choose not to perform community service, but Obama does not respect that decision; rather, he believes that community service provides such great benefits to society that individual decisions not to participate have no legitimacy.

One of the benefits of voluntary community service is the opportunity to willingly help others less fortunate or to promote a cause about which one feels so passionate that he offers his most valuable asset — his time. In return, the volunteer can take great pride in knowing he has done something worthwhile.

But can psychic benefit be achieved if the person is forced to assist others, or forced to select a cause to promote? There is just as much potential to feel that the activity is punishment — as if the “volunteer” is a cog in nothing more than a glorified chain gang.

I have no doubt that some children and adults would benefit from being exposed to the kinds of undertakings America Serves might promote and from participating in them. However, to subject all affected Americans to the program for the possibility that some may derive benefit is the same thinking that has led to all Americans’ paying taxes to support pet projects of some members of Congress.

In a very real sense, how is mandatory, government-enforced service any different from slavery? In both situations, you do not have a choice about whether to participate — you must participate with minimal (if any) recompense.

Murray Rothbard describes involuntary servitude in his classic discussion of individual rights, For a New Liberty:

[What] is slavery but (a) forcing people to work at tasks the slavemaster wishes, and (b) paying them either pure subsistence or, at any rate, less than the slave would have accepted voluntarily. In short, forced labor at below free-market wages.

Obama would counter that, under America Serves, Americans will have a multitude of choices to fulfill their obligation. But that is a specious argument, because the most important choice — whether or not to participate — is not an option. Just consider America Serves to be cafeteria-style involuntary servitude.

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