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By Senator Jim DeMint Sunday, May 24, 2009
Last week, 78 United States Senators voted in favor of the Serve America Act, which will spend $5.7 billion over the next five years to pay people, and in many cases force them, to volunteer. I was not one of the senators voting for this measure. For all its overwhelming bipartisan support, Serve America is about as dangerous a piece of legislation as can even be contemplated.
What makes America America is not our government or economy, but our civil society. It is those organizations, the “little platoons” of democracy, that really make our nation go: The Boy Scouts, United Way, church socials, food drives, and little leagues.
While our large institutions continue to let us down – in Washington and New York – our civic, charitable, and religious organizations thrive. These organizations make our country better, to be sure, but that is mostly because they make us freer. They meet needs and solve problems without inviting the bull of government into the china shop of our local communities.
Our Founding Fathers understood this. They empowered the federal government to do a few things only, with the understanding that individuals, families, and small voluntary associations would take care of the rest. After all, smaller government requires bigger citizens.
Government intervention in social problems is not like a stone thrown in a pond, but like a cinderblock dropped in a puddle. However well intentioned, government intervention in our civil society will do three destructive things.
First, by paying people to “volunteer,” the government will poison the essence of genuine service and, inevitably, volunteers’ personal investment in their work.
Second, government money always has strings attached, which will unavoidably divert the allocation of time and money away from those causes deemed politically or morally “incorrect” by the government. (Do you think crisis pregnancy centers or the Boy Scouts will be high on President Obama’s list of “national service” priorities?)
Meanwhile, faith-based charities will lose out on volunteers to those organizations blessed with the official imprimatur of “national service.” The end result will be a transfer of funds and manpower from religious to secular “charities” and the politicization of virtue.
And third, government-controlled charity will inevitably lead to social apathy among the individuals who staff private charities. The more “service” is seen as another one of those things government takes care of, individuals who previously felt a personal investment in the success of local non-profits will divert their time and attention elsewhere. (Don’t believe me? When was the last time you gave a lot of thought to paving a local road or cutting the grass at city hall?)
The authors of Serve America mean well, but their good intentions would invite the Trojan horse of government “compassion” into the one American institution – civil society – that still works the way it’s supposed to.
We forget to our peril the fact that civil society works precisely because it is everything government is not: Small, personal, responsive, and accountable.