Service and the State: Politicizing the Need for Social Connection

In April 1998, Al Gore suffered an embarrassment. As usual, he released his income tax return for the previous year. Total taxable income on the joint return for 1997 was $197,729, most of which came from his vice presidential salary of $171,500. The Gores paid a total of $47,662 in federal taxes. But Schedule A, for itemized deductions, listed charitable contributions for the year at a grand total of $353.

Critics pounced: Gore was a charity cheapskate. The Republican National Committee issued a press release. Conservative columnists snickered. Nor was the furor confined to conservative media. As Stacy Palmer of the Chronicle of Philanthropy was quoted in USA Today, “Certainly a lot of other Americans in that income bracket have found ways to dig deeper in their pockets.” The New York Times noted that the Gores’ charitable contributions for 1997 amounted to “less than two-tenths of 1 percent of their income.” Ouch.

Now, surely, anyone who had thought politically about the release of Gore’s tax return would have told the vice president that charitable giving in such a small amount would provoke a response. Not giving more would be imprudent, at best. But let us set aside political considerations for a moment. Let us ask, instead, a moral question: shouldn’t Al Gore-or, for that matter, anyone with taxable income of $197,729 for the year-give more than $353 to charity?

Before you reach the “obvious” conclusion, may I offer a little context? Household income is not the same as great wealth. Gore’s May 1998 financial disclosure form listed assets between $770,000 and $870,000, all highly illiquid: a house and farm in Carthage, Tennessee; a house in Arlington, Virginia; and leasing rights to zinc mined on the Carthage property. Uncharacteristically for a person with Gore’s income, the vice president reported no investments in stocks or mutual funds. The strong bull market of the 1990s roared all around the vice president without really touching him.

Now, about that sizable income. True, the Gores were well-off compared with almost all other Americans. But the vice president also had some considerable expenses in 1997. He incurred some $100,000 in legal bills in connection with the Justice Department investigation into Democratic campaign finance irregularities in 1996. (The attorney general concluded there was no basis for further investigation of Gore.) To pay part of them, he borrowed money from a Carthage bank. Also, three of the Gore children were attending expensive schools: Kristin, his second daughter, was at Harvard; Sarah, his third, was at the National Cathedral School; son Albert III was at Sidwell Friends. I do not know whether the Gores received financial aid. But the tuition and fees for attending those three schools for the year would have been in the neighborhood of $70,000. In addition, in July 1997, Gore’s oldest daughter, Karenna, married Andrew Schiff in a ceremony followed by a reception for 300 guests at the vice president’s residence. The cost of such an event could approximate one of the private school tuitions. In short, if I take an after-tax income of $150,000 and start subtracting, I can arrive at a negative number for the year in a hurry.

It’s also worth noting that 1997 was an aberration. The previous year, the Gores donated to charity some $35,000 in royalties from a book by Tipper. And I think one would be hard-pressed to state that either Al or Tipper Gore was somehow derelict in their contribution to public life, broadly construed. For example, in 1997 Tipper won the Hubert H. Humphrey Civil Rights Award for “selfless and devoted service to the cause of equality” as a result of her advocacy for the homeless and the mentally ill.

So thank you very much, but I will not be reaching the conclusion that the Gores should have given more to charity in 1997 than they did (except on the grounds of political prudence). What the Gore case shows, and the reason I have belabored it, is that the real-world circumstances of individuals or families do not always fit neatly with generalizations, even valid ones, about what people “should” do.

Is It Bad Not to Serve?

The question of national service invites the same scrutiny. Is service good? The answer must be yes. As President Bush noted in a speech at Ohio State University in June, “Service is important to your neighbors; service is important to your character; and service is important to your country.”

As for neighbors, he observed, rightly, that “in the shadow of our nation’s prosperity, too many children grow up without love and guidance, too many women are abandoned and abused, too many men are addicted and illiterate, and too many elderly Americans live in loneliness. These Americans are not strangers, they are fellow citizens; not problems, but priorities. They are as much a part of the American community as you and I, and they deserve better from this country.” As for each individual doing service, “everyone needs some cause larger than his or her own profit.” As for country, “we serve others because we’re Americans, and we want to do something for the country we love.”

Who would disagree? Certainly not former President Clinton, who noted in a USA Today op-ed around the same time, “We must take full advantage of the current convergence of political support for national service and the deep desire of so many Americans to serve.”

But now that we have established our moral generalization-service is good—it seems to me we are obliged to invert it and particularize it: is the failure to serve always bad? I don’t see how, looking at the circumstances of Al Gore in the closely related case of charitable contributions—donating one’s labor as against the product of one’s labor, money—one can answer simply and always yes. Should Gore have pulled one of his children out of private school for the year to have $20,000 to tithe? Should he have stiffed his lawyers or skimped on legal representation? Should he have encouraged Karenna and her beau to elope?

Well, surely he should have done something—for the sake of his political career? Yes, he should have. We put that question aside earlier, but in fact, it is of the essence. We know about the Gores’ charitable giving in 1997 solely and precisely because he was a holder of high public office. How much you or I give to charity is nobody’s business but our own. How much the Gores give turns out to be everybody’s business. He is held publicly accountable for his contributions. The connection between Gore’s giving and an underlying charitable intention has been broken. If we are going to be graded on our giving, and the grades posted, and our future depends to some degree on whether people think we pass, we are going to give first and foremost to pass. Another way of putting this is that Gore’s charitable giving has been politicized.

Do we run the risk of a similar politicization in the case of a government role in promoting service? I think the answer must be yes. It is already evident in the nation’s largest voluntary national service program, the U.S. military.

There are many good reasons to join the Marines-and also many reasons not to. Those who make the latter decision have a price to pay (admittedly, typically small): a deficiency in comparison with those who have worn the uniform and therefore presumably have been willing to risk their lives in service to their country. It is not quite “bad” not to have served in uniform. But neither is it quite as “good” as having done so. I occasionally receive e-mail in response to my writing on foreign affairs from correspondents demanding to know whether I ever served in the military and telling me to shut up if I didn’t. I reply that foreign affairs analysis deserves to be considered on the merits, not dismissed with ad hominem attacks. But this response isn’t entirely adequate; something is missing, a uniform.

But, really, is one a better writer on foreign affairs for having served in the military? Not necessarily. Military service might be desirable, but everything has an opportunity cost. The two years spent in the army are two years spent not doing something else, and it is not obvious that the “something else” is valueless in shaping the person who will go on to write about foreign affairs. And if one joins the army in order to credential oneself for a career, there is nothing of an impulse to serve motivating the decision. Again, one does so to forestall future public opprobrium: the decision is politicized.

A more extreme case would be that of President Clinton. As a young man during the Vietnam War, he wrote a letter to the head of his local draft board explaining that his sympathies did not lie with the U.S. military but that he wanted to maintain his “political viability within the system” and so wasn’t willing to consider actions too drastic in avoiding service. Decades later, as commander-in-chief, he suffered for his nonservice. His political opponents made hay of his lack of military experience and what they took to be the contemptuous tone of his letter. Worse, a palpable anti-Clinton sentiment took hold within the military itself. Many thought him unworthy to be their commander. Would Clinton have been a better commander-in-chief had he served? The case is surprisingly hard to make convincingly. Serving in the military does not cause some certain, distinct effect on the person who has served-an effect measurably missing in those who have not served. It seems more accurate to say that the character of the person has a constitutive effect on the meaning of the military service. People’s responses to the experience of combat, for example, can range from superhawkish to hyperdovish.

The Clinton nonservice took place in the context of a draft during wartime; mine, in the context of the all-volunteer force during peacetime. But note that the voluntariness is not dispositive. One cannot say that the compulsory system politicizes but that the voluntary system manages not to. Both politicize, in that they set a state standard for good service that implicitly invites the judgment that those who do not serve are wanting.

Serving Because We Have To?

We can’t do without a military. We have to live with the problem of the distinction between those who served in it and those who did not. But we do not need a civilian service program administered by the state. We do not need to create a world in which the state says “service is good”—thereby implying that a failure to perform it, according to the fashion prescribed by the state, is bad.

Of course service is good. Americans obviously think so. Everett Carl Ladd in The Ladd Report demonstrated that the United States has “an unusually expansive and demanding sense of citizenship” whereby “the citizen has responsibilities for the health and well-being of his society that extend far beyond his relationship with the state.” Hence, Americans volunteer in large numbers and give substantial sums to charitable causes—have always done so. Not because their tax returns will be scrutinized to make sure their contributions measure up, but because they want to. The individualism of the American polity has always been grounded in a dense social fabric. We are not monads. We need connections with others to be fully ourselves.

Nor do I know to whom President Bush was referring when he spoke of someone with no “cause larger than his or her own profit.” I suppose the unreconstructed Silas Marner would do. But the point of that story would seem to be that Marner starts out lacking something that no amount of gold will satisfy. Even tech stock analysts and lawyers get married, have kids, coach soccer, and contribute to the United Way.

The circumstances of different lives, or of a single life over the course of time, call forth different solutions to the problem of social connection, which is the impulse underlying service and charitable giving. There is no political solution to this problem, only the possibility of its politicization by the state, transforming something that we do to fulfill our heartfelt desires into something we do to avoid the sanction that follows from not doing so. To the extent we are acting only to avoid sanction, we won’t satisfy that longing anyway.

In the name of promoting social connection— “these Americans are not strangers, they are fellow citizens” —proponents of national service propose, in effect, to colonize a part of the social field, the impulse to serve and give, that is constituted precisely by the felt need for social connection. I doubt that the state is up to the task. It is possible the result will be benign. It is also possible that young people (and others) will begin to approach service through the state as some children approach the vegetables on their plate: they eat them because they think they have to.

I am not inclined to think that national service will spoil anyone’s impulse to serve and give by making a failure to serve and give in conformity with the outline of national service a matter of implicit social sanction. I think the human need for social connection is far, far stronger than that. And for many, no doubt, national service will be fulfilling. But as more and more high school guidance counselors ask their charges whether they have considered a stint in the program—service being, after all, a good thing—the more they will also convey the message that not serving is a bad thing. You may, under those circumstances, get a workforce of some utility, but you will be adding little to the fulfillment of the human need for social connection. The notion that service administered through the state will strengthen the ties that bind us into a society, or create new ties, strikes me therefore as mistaken.