Are You Being Served?

On her campaign site, Marianne Williamson, a candidate for the Democratic nomination for President has an item on “National Service.” It starts out as follows:

I believe the United States should institute a program whereby every American citizen between the age of 18 and 26 can perform one year of National Service.

Guess what? The United States already has such a program. It’s called freedom. Every American citizen who’s not in prison is now free to perform one year, or half a year, or two years, or ten years of “National Service.” Many are already doing so. When I went to a McDonald’s for breakfast in San Francisco this morning, someone served me. When I went with my my friend Charley Hooper for dinner in San Francisco last night, someone served us. In both cases, they did it with a smile and they were paid and, in the case of the dinner, with a nice tip on top.

I’m going to my doctor for my semi-annual checkup next month and he’s going to serve me. Even better, he’s not between age 18 and 26. He, like Ms. Williamson and me, is in his 60s. Service can happen at many ages, not just in the narrow range that Williamson proposes.

You might think I’m making fun of Ms. Williamson’s proposal. I’m not. I’m pointing out that the whole of idea of service has been distorted. I was at a Hoover conference to celebrate George Shultz’s 95th birthday a few years ago and chaired a panel in which that came up. My colleague Condi Rice talked about the various ways people could serve–in the military and in domestic situations. I pointed out one such obvious domestic situation: waiting tables.

Does the fact that waiters and waitresses wait tables for pay or the fact that doctors provide medical check-ups for pay mean that those activities are not service? No. Indeed, the fact that they’re paid and that the payers are voluntarily doing so makes it all the more certain that it is service. Ironically, the fact that what Williamson proposes is a government program paid for by tax revenues, which means paid for by unwilling payers, means that it might not be service. And even if it is service, the fact that taxes would pay for it means that there would be no guarantee that the value is as great as the cost.