Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology
Third Place Winner, Virginia
Public Service Mandate – A Progenitor to an Avalanche of Government Directives
As I think about public service, I am reminded of John F. Kennedy’s poignantly articulated words: “my fellow Americans: ask not what your country can do for you-ask what you can do for your country” (Kennedy). These words resonate spiritedly in American culture of public service today. Civil service is undeniably a noble deed, where one not only gains the opportunity to help others and give something back to the community but also discovers satisfaction and improvement in one’s own life. Parents, institutions and society at large should collaborate to instill the virtue of civil service in every young American and encourage participation in various national service programs. Yet, I am troubled by a government mandate enforcing a one-year public service commitment as it marks a departure from fundamental principles on which our country was founded. I also wonder whether forcing people into public service breeds negative human emotions and behaviors. Should we compromise individual freedom and independent cognitive development for the sake of calling every young American to service? This unnecessary government interference into American lives poses a viable threat to both individual liberties from future government oppression and the potential for individuals to self-motivate and succeed on their own.
At the heart of our society is individual freedom and protection of those liberties from government control. We take pride in these intrinsic values and must preserve them for America to continue to prosper. We must evaluate the benefits of mandatory civil service with the potential harm of government intrusion into our lives. We cannot sacrifice our basic rights at the risk of wielding excessive power to the government. If the government can dictate the types of job or workplace for its people, it certainly is not far-fetched to believe that the same government ultimately could micromanage the daily lives of its people, from what we do or say to how we should lead our lives. This concern deeply rooted in American history embodies the overall theme underlying our Constitution.
Our unalienable rights to “Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness” espoused in the Declaration of Independence demonstrates that freedoms are intrinsic, not granted (The Declaration of Independence). If they were only authorized by the government, our individual liberties would be subject to their discretion. To ensure against abuse of government power, our Constitution, therefore, set forth a government system on which America was built and still exists today. The framework of our Constitution guarantees discrete individual rights to be safeguarded against a corrupt government, and these paramount rights of American citizens are delineated in the Bill of Rights.
In addition to the Bill of Rights, the 13th Amendment, in particular, protects individuals from involuntary service and supports the position that government cannot infringe upon one’s right not to partake in public service. Though the 13th Amendment was originally enacted to abolish black slavery in the South, the words clearly prohibit both slavery and involuntary service: “Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted, shall exist within the United States, or any place subject to their jurisdiction” (US Const. amend. XIII, Sec. 1). Some may contend that a government service decree does not rise to the level of involuntary servitude as envisioned in 19th Century America, but we must keep in mind what involuntary servitude actually means. “Involuntary servitude” refers to a “condition of one who is compelled by force, coercion, or imprisonment, and against his will, to labor for another, whether he is paid or not” (“Involuntary servitude.” Black’s Law Dictionary). Involuntary servitude does not have to be an unconditional lack of freedom to be protected under the 13th Amendment. A mandatory national service commitment, whether for one year or any other specified time, is a type of coercive labor as it deprives an individual from choosing his own profession or workplace. The 13th Amendment undoubtedly established universal freedom and made involuntary service, including a government-ordered public service, illegal under any American jurisdiction.
Beyond the constitutional argument against a government-ordered national service, we must consider the human element; that is, how and why the idea of mandatory civil service negatively impacts the human mind. My parents have often advised that I should “think for myself” and be empowered to self-advocate. Free will is a fundamental human component and, when individuals can act willingly, they feel in control of their own actions and a sense of satisfaction and accomplishment. If people chose to enter public service on their own, these positive emotions would bring about passion for what they do and fuel their creativity and commitment. When individuals are forced to do something, on the other hand, they naturally feel under attack and develop a sense of resentment towards the power figure as well as the action itself. Humans have a natural tendency to pursue leadership and, if our government mandated national service, people would feel trapped as followers and would be less likely to feel any motivation or desire to work hard. Human instinct is to rebel against opposition, and our government would not be helping its case by exercising coercion. I would believe our government would rather employ 1,000 dedicated, hardworking volunteers over 10,000 unmotivated, dispassionate workers.
Though I believe public service is a worthy cause and is not harmful or dangerous by nature, I do not agree that individuals should be forced to do something merely because an outside source has determined it is for their own good or the good of the majority. Who gets to decide what is good for an individual or what is universally good? As history has repeatedly shown, great danger flags are raised whenever anyone or group of people attempts to force their ideas of ‘righteousness” onto others. Entire populations become vulnerable under these types of legislative behavior.
I recognize the importance of public service and truly hope most Americans will want to enrich their lives through volunteering. Through civil service, young Americans will gain understanding of their responsibilities as citizens working for the public good. Despite my own personal feelings and desires, however, we cannot escape the real threat of a self-serving government capable of overpowering individuals it is supposed to serve and protect. History is replete with examples of government oppression and, as Thomas Jefferson wrote in his letter dated May 27, 1788 to Edward Carrington, “the natural progress of things is for liberty to yield, and government to gain ground” (Jefferson). We should never allow our government to grow beyond control and reason at the expense of our rights and freedom. Absent any national or state emergency or imminent threat of harm or danger to the security of our country or our people, therefore, we must prevent repeating these same mistakes. Neither can we ignore the compelling psychological consequences of a government mandated public service program. I sincerely advocate civil service and our government’s assistance in promoting and raising more awareness of civil service. With effective national service awareness programs in place, Americans will have the opportunity to choose from numerous areas of government service. I firmly believe that, under these nurturing circumstances, Americans will naturally gravitate towards public service and want to make a positive difference in our society.
“Involuntary servitude.” Black’s Law Dictionary. 5th ed. St. Paul: West Publishing Co., 1979. Print.
Jefferson, Thomas. “Letter from Thomas Jefferson to Edward Carrington, 27 May 1788.” The Papers of Thomas Jefferson,vol. 13, ed. Julian P. Boyd. Princeton: Princeton UP, 1956. 208-210. Founders Online, National Archives. Web. 5 Oct. 2014. <http://founders.archives.gov/documents/Jefferson/01-13-02-0120>.
Kennedy, John F. “Inaugural Address.” US Capitol, Washington, DC. 20 January 1961. Inaugural Addresses of the Presidents of the United States. Web. 5 Oct. 2014. <http://www.bartleby.com/124/pres56.html>.
The Declaration of Independence. “The Charters of Freedom.” The U.S. National Archives and Records Administration. Web. 5 Oct. 2014. <http://www.archives.gov/exhibits/charters/declaration_transcript>.
U.S. Constitution. Amend. XIII, Sec. 1. “The Charters of Freedom.” The U.S. National Archives and Records Administration. Web 5 Oct. 2014. <http://www.archives.gov/exhibits/charters/constitution_amendments_11-27>.