AMERICANS are a generous people, willing to aid those in need around them. But not everyone volunteers, which has given rise to numerous proposals for the government to induce - through either coercion or bribery - people to serve. The idea is not a new one. Earlier this century philosopher William James advocated drafting the nation's ``gilded youth'' in what he called ``the moral equivalent of war.'' Today a dozen different pieces of legislation have been introduced in Congress, and the Bush administration has come up with its own service program. The competing proposals range from cash handouts to a massive government work program. Their details vary, but all represent a solution in search of a problem.
Some 92 million Americans, more than one-third of the population, already participate in the activities of some volunteer group - without federal meddling. And many of those who serve are young people: more than one-third of college students now work in social service projects.
Such efforts should be encouraged, but by example and at the grass roots, not through a new federal program. For instance, President Bush wants to create a foundation to hand out federal cash. But at best such an effort would duplicate the efforts of existing programs such as the Student Community Service Project. More likely, dumping public money on private groups would corrupt them, changing their focus from helping people to collecting government funds.
Far more harmful would be the corporation for national service advocated by Sens. Sam Nunn (D) of Georgia and Charles S. Robb (D) of Virginia, among others. They would create a citizens corps and tie federal educational benefits to one or two years spent in civilian projects or the military.
Unfortunately, the program's premise makes no sense: To promote civic values the citizen corps would pay people to volunteer in a land awash with volunteers. The legislation would turn supposedly compassionate service into just another job, rewarded by $100 a week, health insurance, and a $10,000 or $12,000 (untaxed) annual voucher for tuition or home purchase. This might not be a great reward for a putative investment banker, but it sure beats pumping gas.
The citizen corps also is designed to fill only jobs not worth paying for, since no member is to displace any worker or impair any labor contract. What, then, would the potentially millions of young people who might join the corps do? Program proponents suggest such tasks as building playgrounds, handling police paperwork, and installing smoke detectors in senior citizens homes. These activities justify a massive federal program?
The bureaucracy required to administer a system involving millions of young people would squash the very local volunteer groups that are supposed to help carry out the program. There would be the corporation for national service, state national service plans, local national service councils, and so on. Politics would supplant service as mayors and congressmen demanded grants for ``their'' groups and organizations lobbied legislators for more volunteers.
The case for national service is superficially appealing. But a program of government-sponsored service would be an exercise in social engineering, not a solution to social problems. We need more individual service, not a program of national service.