The world, most especially American Democrats, ponders the question: Where might the party go in the immediate years ahead? The political reality seeps into the mind, that liberalism’s next step is not obvious. Dogmatic socialization doesn’t widely appeal. The most obvious social-economic targets are education and medicine. The public sector has moved dramatically into both these areas of costly concern. The public sector already pays an enormous part of the cost of higher education. It remains an economic burden to go, for instance, for four years to Stanford or to MIT, but it’s hard to isolate entire sections of the community who, for the high cost of it, are prevented from going to college. As for medicine, the Democrats would like to make it free, but are estopped by the crystallizing public realization that benefits that are universally used are universally paid for, like Social Security. Free liver pills end up showing their face on the ledgers of everyone.
What then might the Democrats do?
I acknowledge the recommendations of columnist and thinker E. J. Dionne, because they are commendable, but for other reasons also, which will be revealed.
Mr. Dionne, a senior fellow of the Brookings Institution, remarks that gratitude is an aspect of the human condition which is insufficiently acted upon. “Gratitude,” he writes, “suggests that no matter how proud we are of our own accomplishments, we know they would have been impossible without help from others. The politics of gratitude is also a politics of reciprocity and generosity. Because we acknowledge the help we have received we are more ready, individually and collectively, to render help to others.”
That point is obvious in perspectives entirely material. Before we could attend a school, or worship at a church, somebody had to build the school and the temple. We routinely acknowledge our indebtedness by renewing the school’s life and tending to the churches and their obligations. What is harder to recall is the non-material institutional benefits we inherit. “Even if we never need the help of the courts, or of the policeman, or of the Bill of Rights,” he quotes an author, “that they are there for us in the event of need distinguishes our society from most others. To alert us to their presence, however dormant in our own lives, tends to ensure their survival.”
I come out of the closet to identify the words as my own, and renew my call, made 15 years ago in my book Gratitude, for a national program of volunteer service.
Now Mr. Dionne is shrewd in reminding us that liberalism is rooted in “profoundly conservative inclinations.” The proposition that we owe something to our country is acidly tested when individuals go off to war to make the point graphically, yea, even to the grave. But the idea of universal service transcends military duty. As advocated in the book Dionne cites, universal service acknowledges that what we enjoy and lay claim to represents sacrifices made by others. We are the immediate beneficiaries, but self-esteem requires that in enjoying our patrimony, we contribute to its overhead. And the best means of accomplishing this is to give a year’s service to the country and community.
The work that needs doing is widely advertised. The care of the elderly and the sick is a mammoth responsibility, and an 18-year-old who volunteers a year’s work in caring for the elderly is repaying corporally a corporeal contribution made a generation earlier by those who were once young. The appalling cost of maintaining our forests and lakes, of contending against the disintegration of urban centers, requires work, and a quarter million young people devoting a year to the maintenance of our natural resources would be a huge contribution to the regeneration of natural life.
My own proposal was that America endorse the idea of universal service without conscription. If the ethos were vital, we could look on universal service as the Swiss have for generations looked upon military service: It is something everybody simply–does. My hero Milton Friedman rejected drastically my proposal, when made: the result of which is, alas, that the idea might, as Mr. Dionne suggests, be coopted by the Democratic party to give it a persuasive agenda — indeed, a mission — for the years ahead. It would emerge as the political party that sought to enliven patriotism by asking that American young men and women devote a year of their lives to certifying their understanding of the obligations of mature citizenship.
Well, if the Democrats take on the idea, there will be many conservatives who will look on their call for universal service with respect and admiration.