November 19, 2001 -- On November 8, President George W. Bush proposed his own version of the "national service" plan that had been espoused two days earlier by Senators John McCain and Evan Bayh. The New York Times's headline read "Bush Seeks New Volunteer Force for Civil Defense." But most of the text of the president's proposal had little to do with civil defense and much more to do with the senators' broad-ranging scheme for "national service."
Thus, the president began to outline the ways in which people could help their country by saying: "You can serve your country by tutoring or mentoring a child, comforting the afflicted, housing those in need of shelter and a home." None of those could plausibly be classified as civil defense. They are precisely the activities that, in a free country, are carried out by a civil society of for-profit and non-profit organizations—educational, medical, cultural, recreational, and charitable organizations.
These organizations of civil society are valuable for what they do, and valuable again as a bulwark against government. Where civil society flourishes, people need not turn to government programs, assistance, or caretakers. In order to obtain that value, however, the one thing government absolutely must not do is meddle with civil society, through groups like Americorps and Seniorcorps. Government must simply get out of the way of civil society, lift its regulations on private institutions, and cut taxes enough that people may support such organizations.
But that is not the end of the story, though libertarians sometimes speak as if it were. Though civil society should not be turned into a type of public service, that does not mean that there is no place for public service in a free society. There is a place for it, and this is a part of our Revolutionary heritage—often called republicanism—that libertarians have too long ignored. Part of the reason may be that contemporary historians have tried to portray the republicanism of the American Revolutionaries as a form of altruism. But that was not the case, as historian Jerome Huyler demonstrated in his May 1999 interview with Navigator magazine, "How Lockean Was the American Revolution?" For the Revolutionaries, public service stood to Lockean freedom as a means to an end. Citizenship was an activity; liberty was the goal.
Precisely how public service to a limited government may best be incorporated into the lives of free citizens today is a question for political science generally and for each country individually. President Bush has said he is creating a task force to develop ways in which citizens can make the country safer, and he briefly mentioned "a new modern civil defense service" as well as activities such as Neighborhood Watch. Libertarians should be on guard to ensure that the programs developed are properly public activities. But they should also be vocal in reminding the country that voluntary public service on behalf of security and justice is a major part of the legacy we inherit from our Founding Fathers' love of freedom.