To the Editors of The Crimson:
I would like to offer some observations in response to your recent editorial opinions on the proposed national service (Nov. 18, 1985).
The majority opinion argues that citizenship cannot be mandated--this is anti-democratic and hence citizenship must be cultivated through voluntary efforts. I find this contention flawed in several respects. First of all, the idea of purely voluntary citizenship is highly unrealistic in this country. In an individualistic, free-market society like ours, where most of one's energies are devoted to personal advancement or economic survival, there is very little room for the exercise of civic virtue, especially among the economically disadvantaged, and a general cultivation of citizenship has dim prospects. Our nation is instead plagued by voter apathy, widespread self-centredness, and alienation from a distant and bureaucratic federal government. In this atmosphere, a few voluntary exercises in civic virtue would do little to change general attitudes. The time and opportunity costs that such voluntary activities often involve can be handled primarily by the well-to-do. What we should aim for is a common civic effort involving all classes, not continued reinforcement of class divisions.
I also seriously doubt whether a federally-funded incentive program would inspire much of a change. Such a program would probably be handicapped by limited resources and faced with economic competition from other sectors. The use of economic incentives would attract only the less-advantaged and again not provide for the common civic effort that would undermine the psychological bases for bigotry, sexism and class divisions. Incidentally, I find it puzzling that the editors who argue that citizenship should be motivated by altruism would advocate economic incentives for its exercise.
Liberals contend that because it is 'coercive,' a national service is anti-democratic and objectionable. They'd rather we just paid our taxes conscientiously and let Washington or the state governments carry out our business, make no requests of our time, and leave us with our civil liberties. Such a condition is alienating and actually anti-democratic. For democracy to be real, we must have meaningful control over policy. That means more than an annual vote for candidates who often manipulate us through the media. It means control over how issues are articulated and worked into agendas and some direct control over the adoption and implementation of legislation. Otherwise, the exercise of our basic rights, such as free speech, is often pointless and ineffectual.
A national service would increase participation by enlisting all citizens in the implementation of public policy and training them in civic competence. Moreover, it would not violate our basic rights. It clearly falls within the normal responsibilities expected of citizens in modern democracies. The editors say nothing of responsibility. Peter F. Cannavo '86