Forty-seven years ago, I listened to John F. Kennedy give his inaugural address. In it, he uttered those famous words that have inspired thousands of young Americans to devote at least a portion of their lives to “public service”.
“And so, my fellow Americans: Ask not what your country can do for you – ask what you can do for your country.”
In spite of the fact that these words were delivered to the accolades of the American people; Democrats and Republicans alike, and have been immortalized in the press and the annals of history, I have to confess, I have always been somewhat troubled by them. For some reason that I could never quite grasp, hearing them always left me with an uneasy feeling.
Today I read the text of a similar speech by Barack Obama, delivered yesterday to an audience in Colorado and some of my misgivings began to take form. Like Kennedy, Obama invoked the sanction of the founding fathers.
“…That’s the bet our Founding Fathers were making all of those years ago—that our individual destinies could be tied together in a common destiny of democracy, that government depends not just on the consent of the governed, but on the service of citizens. That’s what history calls us to do….Loving your country must mean accepting your responsibility to do your part to change it.” Obama said.
The broad goals held out by both Kennedy and Obama are the same: eliminate poverty and bring about world peace. Following up on Kennedy’s vision, his successor, Lyndon Johnson launched the “War on Poverty”. Since then we have spent an average of $250 billion a year in the effort to eliminate poverty. What have we gotten for our money?
While waiting for a traffic light today at Irving Park Road and Cicero Avenue in Chicago, I noticed a poster on the wall of a bus stop shelter. On the poster was emblazoned the message, “37 million Americans today live in poverty .”
More than anything else that poster bears testimony to the inability of government to eliminate poverty, just as the flag draped coffins returning from the battlefields of Iraq and Afghanistan bears testimony to its inability to bring about world peace so long as there are those who are willing to wage war in order to fulfill a lust for power over the lives and thoughts of their fellow man.
I know it’s politically incorrect to compare political actions today with those of the past, particularly if that comparison involves Nazism or Communism. Nevertheless, when I read the details of Obama’s plan for national service, I can’t help but think of Hitler’s youth corps or Mao Zedong’s Red Guard. Starting in middle school Obama would make funding for education contingent on a requirement for each student to spend fifty hours each year in “community service”. At the College level the number of hours would expand to one hundred, but participants would get $4,000 ($40 per hr.) to help with their tuition.
This would amount to less than one hour per week for middle-schoolers and only two hours per week for college students, but that is not the point. The point is, it makes getting an education contingent on (involuntary), voluntary service to the state. In addition to those seeking an education, Obama would expand his idea of “national service” to everyone.
“I will ask for your service and your active citizenship when I am President of the United States“, he says. “This will not be a call issued in one speech or one program—this will be a central cause of my presidency. We will ask Americans to serve. We will create new opportunities for Americans to serve. And we will direct that service to our most pressing national challenges.”
When Obama speaks of service he is not talking about volunteerism in it’s classical sense, like the Red Cross, or the Boy Scouts, or the local church‘s Ladies Auxiliary. He’s talking about paid government employees, and their services do not necessarily come cheap. For example, it costs the American taxpayer about $50,000 to keep one Peace Corps “volunteer” in the field for a year.
To help realize his dream Obama plans to double the size of the Peace Corps by 2011 and expand AmeriCorps from 75,000 to 250,000. He is not just talking about the young either. “People of all ages, stations and skills will be asked to serve,” he says.
Contrary to the ideals of the Founding Fathers for America, Obama’s vision is the direct opposite. That’s really what bothered me about the Kennedy speech and that’s what bothers me about Obama’s speech.
The idea of “national service” as Obama describes it is not the “sacrifice” envisioned by Jefferson, and Madison. Rather, it is that envisioned by Marx and Engels. It smacks of statism, pure and simple, where the state is the end and people are merely the means by which the state maintains power. In the American model, individual liberty for the people is the end and the state is only the means by which that liberty is secured.
“To secure these rights, (life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness) governments are instituted among men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed; that, whenever any form of government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the right of the people to alter or abolish it, and to institute a new government, laying its foundation on such principles, and organizing it in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their safety and happiness.”
—Declaration of Independence–July 4, 1776
Almost exactly one hundred and sixty years before Kennedy admonished us to “ask not what your country can do for you”, Thomas Jefferson answered that question in his Inaugural address. To paraphrase Jefferson’s thoughts in modern language:
“The ideal government is one that does not spend taxpayer money foolishly, prevents its citizens from harming one another and does not rob them of their labor through taxation; That is the sum total of good government“. —Thomas Jefferson, First Inaugural Address – 1801 (Paraphrased)
Every year the American taxpayer spends the first five months of his labor working for the state. After that, whatever is left over he can spend for the welfare of his family. To that Obama would add another week plus for our younger citizens and almost three weeks additional for college students. He has not said exactly how much more “service” he expects from other adults and senior citizens.
If Jefferson, Jay, Madison, Henry or any of the other Patriots of 1776 were alive today they would be screaming at Washington, (D.C. not George) Enough, already! Enough!