Bethesda-Chevy Chase High School
Third Place Winner, Maryland
When my parents were growing up in communist Poland in the 1970-80’s, they, and everyone else for that matter, were required to participate in "czyny spoleczne”. In “czyny spoleczne”, the local version of public service, participation of all people was required. Those activities were mandated by government cells at various levels. In these services, all the citizen and students could show their support for the authorities and socialism. People participated in road building, beautifying of grounds, and agricultural activities, like potato harvesting etc. Mandatory public service also included compulsory two year military service for men. All this service was supposed to be done for the country, for the nation. But in reality, the government used this required service to spread propaganda and cover and make up for the system’s inability to develop and provide for the common good and the people’s needs. Most smart and independent people always tried to find a way out; they would get “sick” or find some other reason not to show up. They would look for loopholes in which they could resist government imposed activities. For these reasons, they were marked or blacklisted. Over time, they became known as the “enemies of the people”. These “enemies”, on the other hand, were willing and ready to contribute their time and skills in activities that were aimed at bringing freedom. They created underground self groups, intellectual institutes, fundraisers etc. They were willing to fight for their freedoms, risking personal safety and their families’ well being.
The US form of government is obviously quite different from socialist dictatorships. However, even in democracies, government power can be prone to abuse. Imposed, mandatory public service could be used not necessarily as a propaganda tool or against its people, but I can easily foresee public service being taken advantage of by politically driven initiatives.
Forced public service can turn people away from the act of service and from the government mandate. I believe that public service should be voluntary. Public service means offering help and time from the heart without expecting anything in return. Such volunteering is a fulfilling and noble experience with many positive impacts for the participant and people around. However, as soon as you make this service mandatory, many of these positive effects, as well as the true purpose, are lost. People lose the motivation and passion to serve. In addition to this, forced volunteer work undermines our nation’s foundations of the value of personal liberty. Governments are often corrupt and abuse their power, just as my parent’s generation witnessed growing up in communist Poland.
Over the past few months, mandatory public service has been a popular debate in both the public and private sector. Supporters say that requiring service would promote citizenship and spread good feelings. However, requiring Americans to do service undermines the idea of volunteerism. It also violates the fundamental American principles of personal liberty and freedom of choice. We are forced to give one year of our life to the government for service, against our will. In 1979, Ronald Reagan said that “[Mandatory national service and conscription] rests on the assumption that your kids belong to the state. If we buy that assumption then it is for the state -- not for parents, the community, the religious institutions or teachers -- to decide who shall have what values and who shall do what work, when, where and how in our society.” As Reagan said, mandatory service would turn the citizens into government workers, not volunteers. Their actions would be controlled by the big bureaucratic government, and this could easily lead to a variety of abusive situations.
The same argument could be extrapolated to philanthropy and donations. In some countries, e.g. Germany, people are required to contribute a portion of their income to their selected place of worship. In other countries, these donations are completely voluntary, like in the US. Paradoxically, most of the places of worship in Germany are empty on days of worship, while in the US, places of worship are overcrowded.
The same goes for military service. Despite the fact that the US military is based completely on volunteers, America is the mightiest military force in the world. In European countries, like Germany the military service is mandatory. Strangely enough, Germany’s military is weak and has not been playing any important role in global crisis situations. So how can you explain that people can devote and risk their lives when they do not have to? It’s the noble cause that pushes them. Not the government mandate. Required service puts unmotivated people in the military.
We could go on and on. Philanthropy is another noble public service. Without a government mandate, people donate vast sums of money towards righteous causes. Take the example of Bill Gates and Warren Buffet contributing billions of US dollars to fight poverty and developing health services globally. When people see a need, they do not wait for the government order to act. That was the case with the Washington Monument restoration in D.C., or current cleaning and fixings of the ancient coliseum in Rome. These were entirely unforced by the government, voluntary gestures.
The alternative would be government intervention, which means increasing taxes, which in the long run, could mean overspreading, government waste. However, I see a positive role for the government in facilitating platforms for volunteering activities. I see a value in the government’s encouragement for volunteerism. I agree in Kennedy’s words "My fellow Americans, ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country." There is tremendous value in government run and/or facilitated platforms like AmeriCorps, Habitat for Humanity, and Teach for America, and others. Thanks to those initiatives, the world has been enjoying the skills of numerous volunteers seeking to improve the world. I believe that a combination of volunteerism, philanthropy and charity along with facilitation coming from various levels of the government is the best framework for public service. Making it a government imposed requirement would be an intrusion, to say the least. This could easily lead to a variety of abuses, creating new sets of problems.