Utne Blogs > Politics

When Volunteerism Is Like Slavery

 by Bennett Gordon


Tags: ,

Government VolunteerismConservatives are going apoplectic over the whiff of a national service plan in the United States. Barack Obama’s Whitehouse.gov promises, “the federal government will encourage sustained civic engagement that will transform those serving, the communities they help, and the nation as a whole.” Writing for the American Conservative, Tom Streithorst characterizes Obama’s call to service as “part of a long series of Democratic Party efforts to create pretexts to commandeer more of people’s lives.”

Many of the arguments against national service jump from the federal government encouraging volunteering to the federal government forcing it. “In Washington logic,” Streithorst writes, “since volunteering is a good thing, everyone should be forced to do it.” Whether or not this is true, Streithorst writes that requiring young people to volunteer would be akin to “tacitly repealing the 13th amendment prohibition on involuntary servitude.”

“The plain English word for forced labour is slavery,” Jamie Whyte wrote for the British magazine Standpoint. Whyte focuses on Gordon Brown’s recent suggestions that the government should give teenagers the opportunity for more community service. This program doesn’t give any opportunity that teenagers don’t already have, according to Whyte, and is instead intended to force kids into 50 hours of volunteering. As if the comparison to slavery wasn’t hyperbolic enough, Whyte takes the argument a step further, comparing the program to “a rapist who claimed that by forcing himself upon a woman he was merely giving her an opportunity for sex.”

When critics take a step back from the ledge of hyperbole, they actually make some interesting points about the plans. Writing for Reason magazine, Paul Thornton takes issue with the focus on young people in compulsory service. He writes: “National service proponents never really explain why young people are uniquely suited for their schemes. Rather, they rely on the common assumption that kids should be put to work because, well, they’re kids!”

One reason why kids are the focus, according to E.J. Dionne Jr. in the New Republic, is that they’re having trouble finding other jobs. Dionne asks, “could there be any more efficient (or, face it, a cheaper) way to cut unemployment than through modest subsidies for voluntary service?” Dionne points out that in this economy, national service plans continue to move forward, with little fanfare and in spite of hyperbolic opposition.

Sources: American ConservativeStandpointReasonNew Republic 

sarah hill
6/9/2009 8:29:53 AM

While I can see the argument against forced volunteerism, I think that overall it is a good idea to at least strongly encourage it. At college, all freshmen had to put in 40 hours of volunteering over the course of the year. Many of us disagreed with the idea, but I don't think anyone would say it harmed us at all, and in the end many would agree that the experience helped to shape our our outlooks on our education and our futures. When I graduated from college four years later, I felt strongly about giving back to my country. Many in my family have served in the military. In many countries, it is typical that all young people must serve for a year or two in the military. In some they are given the choice between military and civil service, which I felt both demonstrated and fostered pride in one's country. I could not enter the military, and felt that the best way for me to give back would be to serve as an AmeriCorps VISTA. It was great to have a job right out of school that helped to shape my perspective, enhance my school education and give me training for the future. In today's too often self-centered world, sometimes we need to be taken out of our comfort zone and shown (maybe not always by our own volition) that it really is better to give than to take.


susan k. stewart
6/6/2009 7:31:35 AM

Until the mid-1970's young people were encouraged to serve their country -- it was call the draft. We got rid of it for a reason. Required volunteerism (which is an oxymoron) serves no real purpose other than free labor. To truly volunteer and serve a community one must do so not from compulsion, but from heart and soul. I taught my children to serve others in places and causes they care deeply about, not to just put in time.