Democracies try to boost public service

Various leaders propose incentives for volunteering as a way to rebuild trust and instill a culture of giving. In the U.S., two presidential candidates have made it a campaign issue.

Volunteer divers enter the waters off Deerfield, Fla., on June 15 for an annual clean-up of ocean debris.

What a dive! On June 15 a group of 633 scuba divers in Florida cleaned up more than 1,500 pounds of waste off Deerfield Beach. It was the largest underwater cleanup on record. It was also perhaps the largest single act of volunteering under the seas.

That last point is worth noting as the idea of promoting public service has lately been revived in at least four Western democracies facing political divisions and a rise in social distrust.

Last month, for example, the French government launched a program of national service with the first group of 2,000 teenagers being trained for community work. This year, Canada ramped up its new “service corps” for young people. In Britain’s contest to choose a new prime minister, one candidate introduced the idea of compulsory service for every 16-year-old.

In the United States, meanwhile, two Democratic presidential hopefuls have proposed a service program for all young adults – beyond existing ones like Peace Corps and AmeriCorps.

Pete Buttigieg, the mayor of South Bend, Indiana, mentioned the idea in April while former Rep. John Delaney of Maryland was more concrete in laying out a program for a “National Service and Climate Corps.” In addition, a group of Democrats in Congress proposed a bill last month that would offer student loan relief in exchange for public service.

For 15 years, volunteering has declined in the U.S., one reason Congress set up an 11-member panel in 2017 called the National Commission on Military, National, and Public Service. While the panel will make its recommendations next year, it has already found “an overwhelming desire” among Americans to serve others.

One of the commission’s possible goals is to create a universal expectation of service among a majority of Americans. Or as another presidential candidate, Democratic Rep. Seth Moulton of Massachusetts, put it in a speech, national service should become so common that employers will ask young people applying for a job, “Where did you do your year of service?”

Giving to others through volunteering serves many purposes, especially if it is truly voluntary rather than compulsory. It can build trust across the diverse people of a nation or increase unity around shared values. Most of all, it reflects a commitment to unconditional affection toward others. That’s true even when picking up trash on the bottom of the ocean.

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