Lindgren Responds

Volokh Conspiracy co-blogger Jim Lindgren responded to my post on his recent piece on foreign policy and Obama’s service program in comments. I’m taking the liberty of putting what he had to say up here on the main page to make sure people see it. Time doesn’t permit me to respond further today, but I should get back around to it Wednesday evening.

Here’s Jim:

I understand why you misread my comments, but you did misread them. Back in July, there was a stir about the “Civilian National Security Force’ comments. EVERY blogger who commented on this statement — EXCEPT ME — said they seemed to refer to a new paramilitary organization. I wrote then that they got it wrong: Obama was talking about his national service programs.

Coming late to a discussion, I could see why you would think that my comments were faux generous.

Your second misreading may perhaps result from your not reading the entire thread. I tend to agree with you on US speakers of foreign languages, which is why I questioned the same commenter that you took issue with,

Your strongest (amd most effective comments) are directed at a commenter who objects to recruiting foreign-language speakers. Somehow you seem to attribute that commenter’s view to me. Though I rarely bother to post a comment disagreeing with the many comments I disagree with, in fact I did post disagreeing with the very commenter you attack. Because that part of Obama’s proposal sounded sensible to me, I endorsed the comment of yet another commenter asking what is wrong with increasing foreign speakers abroad.

So your comments are sound in going after that one commenter, but unsound in attributing those views to me. I disagreed with those views in the very thread you attack.

In addition, I do think that mandatory national service programs are contrary to American traditions of national service, as I’ve laid out in several posts, esp. this one, which follows:

Unlike some European systems of the past two centuries, the American tradition is for individuals to form their own diverse communities and for each community to govern itself to the extent possible. Universal national service seems to reverse the direction of this relationship: its goal is to use the government to transform people to fit within the government’s vision of what’s important and how one should serve. Senator Barack Obama makes that government direction clear, promising us that his administration “will direct that service to our most pressing national challenges,” eschewing the traditional American approach of having the government take its direction from the diverse choices of its people.

As de Tocqueville understood, voluntary associations are valuable not merely on account of what they accomplish, either for participants or for others, but also because they establish cultural and political forces in society independent of government. In modern society, and perhaps especially in America, each individual stands alone as an independent citizen in relation to the state, and individuals are therefore peculiarly dependent on voluntary associations to ensure that the state does not acquire a monopoly of cultural and political influence. Voluntary associations help to protect us from what de Tocqueville called “the tyranny of the majority.”

In Mr. Obama’s vision of voluntary organization, however, the government would develop, coordinate, and focus the efforts of private individuals and their associations, which thus would lose their independence and much of their capacity to offer alternatives to the state and its vision of life. Indeed, far from challenging the state and holding it accountable, morally or politically, many private associations would become aligned with the state. Rather than being alternatives to government, they would become its instruments.

One of John Locke’s most important philosophical moves was to posit a state of limited powers. Not all good things must be within the state or be promoted by the state. For example, the sovereign could be persuaded of the good of the “one true religion” and yet could believe that it would be best for the state to be cautious about promoting that religion.

That crucial Enlightenment insight helped end centuries of European religious wars. Among twentieth-century governments, most communist, fascist, and sharia-based regimes rejected that Enlightenment view and tried to bring within their ambit all things that the state considered good – with predictable results for human flourishing and freedom.

A key element in the rise of modern life, both its freedom and its prosperity, was the substitution of taxation for personal services, a development that allowed individuals to spend their time on what they know and love — on tasks in which they have a comparative advantage. Being more productive as a result of this freedom, individuals can spare more of the fruits of their labor for the community.

This move from services in kind to financial payment by taxes was and is a matter of personal liberty. Such a transition was essential if individuals were no longer to be serfs in service to their lord or other communal authorities. Except for a military draft (which should be contemplated only in dire emergencies), individuals these days are mostly free to engage in voluntary activities for the benefit of themselves and others.

Mandatory community service sucks in much that is private and diverse and spits out an excessively homogenized version of the good, a version that would come with a government seal of approval.

It’s probably not an accident that many American groups who tend to favor greater government largesse are relatively stingy in their own donations to charity. Nor do I think it an accident that Americans are the most generous people in the world, while the few European countries that have universal military or community service have populations that fall far short of America’s in donating their time and money to the less fortunate. For charity work to be truly transformative in a positive way, perhaps it must be truly voluntary. That coerced service can be transformative without endangering freedom is even more improbable.

By bringing voluntary charitable activity under government control and by presenting his scheme as a “civilian national security force,” Mr. Obama is breaking down the barriers between private and public life, between individual choice and government programs, between childhood education and adult employment, and between the diversity of freely chosen efforts on behalf of one’s neighbors and subservience to the government’s vision of the good.

2 Responses

  1. So Barack Obama wants everyone to learn a foreign language, but which one should it be?

    The British learn French, the Australians study Japanese and the Americans prefer Spanish. And this leaves Mandarin Chinese out of the equation.

    Interestingly nine British MP’s have nominated Esperanto for the Nobel Peace Prize 2008.

    You can see detail at

  2. […] to Lindgren Posted on September 3, 2008 by gronberg In reviewing Jim Lindgren’s response to my criticism of his post on a “civilian national security force,” one thing stands […]

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: