19 July 2007

National Service

The Objectivist
Dunkirk-Fredonia Observer
Monday, June 25, 2007

Democratic presidential candidate and Senator Christopher Dodd (D-CT) recently called for mandatory community service for all high school students. Senator and Republican Presidential Candidate John McCain (R-AZ) has called for a mandatory draft of young adults for a similar purpose. The emphasis on service can also be seen in John F. Kennedy widely quoted claim that you should “ask not what your country can do for you; ask what you can do for your country” and in the notion that the successful should give back to their community. It’s time to ask whether we have a duty of service and whether government-enforced servitude satisfies it.

I doubt persons have a duty to be charitable. Consider a rich person who lives in Connecticut and the poor in Sudan. It’s hard to see how poor Sudanese can have a moral claim to the rich Yankee’s money given that the latter isn’t related to them by blood or friendship and didn’t cause their plight. Nor is it clear why the situation changes when the poor live in Detroit or Los Angeles rather than Sudan. However, in what follows let’s ignore this doubt.

It’s hard to see why those with higher incomes haven’t already satisfied the duty. According to 2004 IRS data, the top 5% of income earners paid 57% of the income taxes. The same is likely true of corporate income taxes since the upper class owns a large portion of corporate stock. Income and corporate taxes comprise more than half of the federal government’s total revenue (56% in 2005) and so, like overworked oxen, the upper class does far more than it’s share in pulling the government wagon. They probably pay more than 40% of their income to the different levels of government and most of that gets paid out in welfare (goods and services for others rather than public goods like defense) to groups such as the poor, elderly, and farmers. In a sane world, when one group is forced to work at least two days a week for others (40% of a five-day workweek), this is enough giving. The notion that the upper class doesn’t give enough is as distasteful as if Scrooge were forced to work two days every week for Tiny Tim and Bob Cratchit then stomped into his office and angrily demanded that he give more.

Even if the weighty tax burden didn’t satisfy the duty of charity, economist Walter Williams notes that it’s hard to see why anyone would think that it’s the upper class who should have to “give back” to the community. After all, they are less likely to hit up the taxpayers for public school costs (roughly $15,000 per pupil in Fredonia and Dunkirk) and to need them to pick up their family’s medical and prison costs. More specifically, the Tax Foundation reports that the bottom 60% of households receive more in government spending than they pay in taxes. If anyone should have to give something back to the community, it should be those who sucked long and hard on the government teat.

In addition, does anyone seriously think that mandatory service for the youth is an efficient way to help the poor? Given the usual government efficiency, it’s clear that if the goal is to actually help the downtrodden, and not a new age goal like Sen. Dodd’s “shared experiences,” then we should use taxpayer dollars to hire firms that specialize in providing needed goods and services. Rebuilding New Orleans will go a lot slower if we grab students still hung over from Spring Break rather than hiring veteran construction workers.

A peacetime draft also doesn’t save money. Consider the analogous case of the military draft. If the country wants to put more men and women in arms, there are two ways it can do it. It can pay what is necessary to induce them to join or it can force them to join. The second doesn’t eliminate the costs (lost income and frustrated preferences) but merely hides them from public view. The costs are now borne by those unfortunate enough to be dragooned into the military. More specifically, their losses are at least as great as the minimum amount of money necessary to induce them to serve.

A draft is morally noxious since we have in effect instituted enslavement, albeit for a limited time. Even if supreme emergencies like war warrant doing so, and I doubt it, only a liberty-hating politician would propose that this should be done for poorly defined and politically correct goals like those McCain and Dodd cite.

The mistaken weight given to service can also be seen in the claims that we should be eternally grateful to members of the police and military and that working for the government is a higher calling. It’s hard to see what supports these claims. The individuals who took police and military jobs judged the package of benefits (including pay, prestige, and excitement) and costs (risk of death and injury) to be better than their other alternatives. Sometimes when you take a risk you lose and in the case of police officers they lose their lives less frequently than do such commonplace jobs as farmer, construction worker, and truck driver. Roughly 12 per 100,000 of police officers die on the job compared to 33 farmers, 28 construction workers, and 28 truck drivers per 100,000 (2000 figure) – and these weren’t even the most dangerous jobs. In some cases the financial benefits can be significant. New York state troopers, for example, make $65,357 after one year and can retire after 20 years. I would never ask persons to take jobs that they don’t want to do and I doubt my neighbors would either. Given this, it’s hard to see why they are owed gratitude for doing a job they willingly took. It’s even harder to see what other than wishful thinking justifies the closely related claim that working for the government is a higher calling than working in the private sector.

Instead of all of this Kennedyesque mumbo-jumbo, we should ask of our country the following, “Ask not what your country can do for you, but merely that it not trample you.” Hmmm, maybe my slogan needs some tweaking.

1 comment:

The Constructivist said...

Hmmm, maybe this FAQ will help.