Time’s Call for Servitude (2007 Oct)

by Barry A. Liebling

Nearly everyone is annoyed by the American welfare system. The government is either not doing enough or it is meddling too much. Interventionists are the champions of turning up the volume. For them the guiding hand of government is the preferred path to their social objectives. The country would be a better place, they argue, if everyone were provided with free education, healthcare on demand, more job security, affordable housing, and less risk of being harmed by their own decisions.

Advocates of individualism and personal autonomy view government intervention with antipathy. Their most principled argument against the welfare state is that government action diminishes individual freedom, and individual freedom is every person’s natural right. Whenever a new program is instituted or an old one expanded people must comply and have less authority as to how they will run their own lives. The idea that government planning leads to reduced autonomy, and eventually tyranny, is not new. Friedrich Hayek’s The Road to Serfdom is the classic reference.

The assertion that government welfare reduces individual freedom is not usually convincing to interventionists. Some do not believe that welfare policies thwart people from their personal goals. Others do not place much value on freedom. After all, people who are permitted to do as they please are likely to make mistakes. Government experts, claim interventionists, can plan better than the average individual, and everyone can benefit from “benevolent authority.”

Shrinking personal autonomy due to government action is usually viewed as a side-effect. Staunch individualists regard it as unacceptable and a sufficient reason to reject welfare programs. Typically interventionists either doubt that the side-effect is significant or view diminished freedom as an acceptable trade-off.

Some interventionist are openly hostile to the idea of individual freedom and aim to extinguish it. They embrace communitarianism, and yearn for a collectivized world. Their goals include the reduction or elimination of “atomistic individuals,” and bringing about a society where word “I” is replaced by the collective “we.”

This sentiment was recently articulated (September 10, 2007) in a Time magazine cover essay “A Time To Serve” by Richard Stengel. The author reveals a lot about his objectives, his desire to disguise the nature of his proposal, and his strategy for bringing servitude to America.

What are Stengel’s objectives?

Stengel is calling for a collectivized America and claims that “the way to give us that more capacious sense of ‘we’ … is universal national service.” Every American should be induced to devote “a year or more to national service” – possibly in the military but more probably working in domestic welfare programs – as a “countrywide rite of passage.” There is no single specific task that Stengel says individuals should be assigned to do. The important thing is that everyone would serve in a government position.

The author would like to live in an America where personal sacrifice is everyone’s duty all the time. Stengel is convinced that “after 9/11, Americans were hungry…to make some kind of sacrifice” but instead, he complains, they were “asked to go shopping.” He favors a national system where “asking people to make a true sacrifice” will be routine.

He laments that Americans are doing too much on their own rather than being directed by the government and regards the end of the military draft in 1973 as a change for the worse.

Stengel’s interpretation of Americans donating their time to civic organizations is especially telling. He points out that “volunteerism and civic participation since the ’70s are near all time highs.” You might think that this would mitigate the “need” for government action. But Stengel argues that “the reason private volunteerism is so high is precisely that confidence in our public institutions is so low.” Then he asserts that the solution to the “problem” of individuals volunteering is to put civic activities under the government umbrella.

What does Stengel want to disguise?

Stengel knows that many Americans “don’t like to be told what they have to do,” will bridle at the idea of national service and see it – accurately – as servitude. Thus he describes his plan as “voluntary, not mandatory.” But this is the same writer who rejects voluntary civic participation in favor of universal service. If his plan is really voluntary it will not be universal; if it is universal it cannot be voluntary.

Stengel proposes to sweeten his pill by “using carrots not sticks.” Each of Stengel’s recommended programs will use positive incentives rather than punishments to induce compliance.

But government programs are by their nature coercive. No finessing can change the fact that a central authority with the power to tax, to award money, and to prohibit citizens from interfering with its actions will exercise enormous power.

Imagine how “voluntary – carrots, not sticks” universal service would unfold. Will a young person be accepted into a college if she declines to volunteer after high school? Will banks be urged to grant loans only to individuals who have fulfilled their national service? Will large companies be persuaded to hire only those who have participated in a federal program?

What is Stengel’s strategy for bringing servitude to America?

Stengel understands and agrees that increasing the size of the welfare state will dampen personal freedom. The twist is that for him it is not an unfortunate side-effect but the result he is most interested in achieving. The method he proposes is a “10-point plan for universal national service.”

Each point is either a new, or expanded, federal welfare program. Any one of them might result in turning up the volume of government intervention. If two or three were implemented the impact on the country could be significant. By suggesting that all ten should be given a try he is calling for an avalanche of government planning and control that is reminiscent of the former Soviet Union. What is a fond dream for Stengel would be a disgusting nightmare for anyone who values personal freedom.

The lesson to be drawn from the Time cover essay is that Stengel represents many people who neither understand or appreciate the importance of personal autonomy – some of whom are working for its antithesis. Advocates of individualism are getting it right when they see government welfare threatening everyone’s freedom.

*** See other entries at AlertMindPublishing.com in “Monthly Columns.” ***

Comments are closed.