EVERY so often, William F. Buckley Jr. - philosophical pugilist, best-selling novelist, syndicated columnist, talk-show host, sailor of the high seas, preeminent thinker - takes a position that puts him at odds with his conservative brethren. His position in favor of legalizing drugs is one example. ``Gratitude: A Reflection on What We Owe to Our Country'' is another. In his new book Mr. Buckley makes the case for national service, a period in a young person's life during which he or she must serve country and fellow man. But not necessarily in the military. One could serve at a nursing home, the Library of Congress helping repair old books, a day-care center, or anywhere a young person would like to serve. In ``Gratitude,'' Buckley argues that national service is not only the duty of the civic-spirited young American but also an imperative if we are going to cultivate the kind of citizenry who can build a noble society and appreciate living in a self-governing republic.
His thesis is that we should pay back what we owe to those who came before us. ``Americans growing into citizenhood,'' he writes, ``should be persuasively induced to acknowledge this patrimony and to demonstrate their gratitude for it. ... Failure to express gratitude through disinterested social exertion brings on the coarsening of the sensibilities, a drying out of the wellspring of civic and personal virtue.'' Summing it up, Buckley says, ``The purpose of service is to rouse the civic sense.''
The details are fairly simple. Every American must perform one year of national service in a program administered by the states but supported by a National Service Franchise Administration. Participants would be allowed to make customized service arrangements, such as four summers of service during college as opposed to taking a year off. As for getting people to participate, Buckley argues that if the country can legally and culturally tolerate compulsory schooling, it can also tolerate national service.
Anyone who refused to perform a year's national service would be denied federal loans for college, and those who don't need them or don't go to college would be denied a driver's license, for how long he doesn't say. Inducements might include a tax break on the first $10,000 of income an individual earns. The objective is to enroll 80 percent of those eligible by the year 2000. Those who served would be known as first-class citizens to distinguish them from those who do not.
Buckley's principal argument is that national service is right and proper not only because the people served get something out of it but also because altruism burnishes the spirit of the giver: Society becomes ``safer, lovelier, and more precious.'' All of this may be true, but many are asking whether all-but-compulsory national service is necessary to promote the kind of civic virtue Buckley envisions, and whether such a program would foster authentic altruism any more than military conscription fosters authentic patriotism.
Those opposed to Buckley's thesis are ultimately concerned with shaking loose one of the cornerstones of conservatism's foundation: the firm commitment to limited government. Or, as James Madison would put it, giving the state yet another chance to play the ``old trick of turning every contingency into a resource for accumulating force in the government.'' Buckley says that should be avoided at all costs, but he doesn't offer any sound reason why the state, with its new power to confiscate driver's licenses, for instance, would not use such a program to accumulate the kind of coercive power Buckley has been inveighing against for all of his professional life.
A second question is how fairly national service jobs would be distributed. One can well imagine the sons of the rich, famous, and politically well-connected performing their national service as an intern on Capitol Hill or at the Library of Congress. But Joe Sixpack of Fort Smith, Ark., might find his little girl scrubbing toilets in the Little Rock Home for the Incurably Insane, Mr. Sixpack not having made a donation to Senator Deeppocket's latest campaign. And who knows what kinds of deferments the state would be pressed to create.
In ``Gratitude,'' Buckley sets forth a vision of a truly heroic society in the tradition of those, such as George Washington, Edmund Burke, and other conservative luminaries, who fervently and correctly believed we owe a debt to our forebears for the heritage they bequeathed to us. The question is whether national service will help us show true gratitude, or merely dragoon young people into a service where a veneer of government subsidized altruism hides a passionate distaste for work they are doing.