HOME WELCOME ARTICLES ARCHIVES BIOGRAPHY FEEDBACK BLOG LINKS A Nation of Servants: Defining Public Service for the 21st Century
The World & I, January 2004                         
Current, February 2004     
The Reference Shelf, August 2006
At Issue: Volunteerism, 2008
By Alan W. Dowd

There is a consensus in the United States that a key ingredient to maintaining a good society is involving Americans in service to something greater than themselves. The Founders believed it. Indeed, many of them sacrificed their lives—and most of them, their wealth—for the greater cause of America’s independence and nationhood. President John F. Kennedy awoke a generation with the phrase, “Ask not what your country can do for you—ask what you can do for your country.” Some three decades later, President Bill Clinton declared, “Service is the spark to rekindle the spirit of democracy in an age of uncertainty.” In the wake of the terrorist attacks on Washington and Manhattan, President George W. Bush challenged the American people to make “a commitment to service in [their] own communities…Serve your country by tutoring or mentoring a child, comforting the afflicted, housing those in need of shelter and a home.”[1] 

Yet from the very beginning, the American people have valued the individual and rewarded individualism. After all, this is where the Pilgrims fled to find religious and political independence, where the “Don’t tread on me” flag once waved, where homesteaders and frontiersman daily redrew the borders of a nation, where the cowboy rides off into the sunset alone, where free enterprise reigns and seemingly everyone is or once was an entrepreneur. As Alexis de Tocqueville concluded in Democracy in America, arguably the most insightful assessment of the American character ever written, “Individualism is a novel expression…a mature and calm feeling.” The problem with individualism, according to de Tocqueville, is that it “saps the virtues of public life [and] in the long run…is absorbed in downright selfishness.”[2]

What was true in the early 19th century remains true in 21st century. Unbridled individualism seems to have eaten away at that all-important connective tissue between employees and employers, shareholders and executives, neighbors and neighborhoods, citizens and government, old and young. Instead of shared values and common responsibilities, there is a demand for rights and entitlements, a selfish competition to acquire and amass, to consume and claim. Talk of public service is often dismissed as quaint. Indeed, as the National Commission on the Public Service concluded in January 2003, “The notion of public service, once a noble calling, proudly pursued by the most talented Americans of every generation, draws an indifferent response from today’s young people and repels many of the country’s leading private citizens.”[3]

However, there remains a pull in the other direction, an undercurrent of cooperation and community that often redirects America’s individualist impulse. This ebb and flow has always existed and was grafted into the very marrow of the United States: Although America’s founding document was a declaration of independence, arguing that each person has a right to life, liberty and the pursuit of his own happiness, the US Constitution begins with the phrase “We the people”—not “I the individual.” 

The challenge today, as in Jefferson and Madison’s day, as in Kennedy’s, is to strike a balance between these two competing forces—and to do so without expanding the size and scope of government any further. A first step in that direction is to recognize that anyone can participate in public service.  

From Bill Buckley to Bill Clinton

It may be helpful to define what public service is before considering how it contributes to a good society. Public service is both more and less than working for some government agency or winning an election. That’s because serving the public demands more than simply taking an oath or wearing a uniform. Paradoxically, authentic public service doesn’t require a citizen to enlist in the military or run for office or join the Peace Corps. For that matter, it doesn’t require a person even to be a citizen: There are 31,000 foreign nationals serving in the US armed forces. In fact, as the Wall Street Journal reported last spring, some of the very first American troops to die in Iraq weren’t Americans at all, but rather immigrants like Marine Corporal Jose Antonio Gutierrez from Guatemala.[4]  

Some expressions of public service are obvious: elective or judicial office, military service, national service programs. Some are not so obvious. The school teacher, the Social Security official, the police officer or deputy sheriff, the precinct committeeman, the librarian and the juror are all public servants, whether we notice them or not.  

So what is a good definition for public service? An entry from Merriam-Webster points us in the right direction: Public service is simply “a service rendered in the public interest.” By that definition, virtually anyone can be a public servant—no matter what his station in life.

If an action promotes the public good or meets the public’s needs, it is public service. If it promotes something else or meets only private needs, it is something less than public service—no matter who is performing it.  

This expansive definition of public service calls to mind Justice Potter Stewart’s wry observation on obscenity: “I know it when I see it.” In the same way, public service may not be easily defined, but we know it when we see it.  

Simply put, perhaps our concept of public service—focused as it is on government and politics—is too narrow. Consider the heroes of Flight 93, who died so that hundreds or thousands of other Americans might live. They weren’t soldiers or statesmen, but they certainly served the public. Just as September 11 taught us that war is no longer something fought “over there,” it should have reminded us that public service is not something performed exclusively by public officials, people in uniform or politicians. It’s something that every American can—and arguably should—do, which may explain Washington’s numerous attempts to create and enlarge national-service programs.  

Today, there are bills working their way through Congress that would create a National Youth Service Day, modernize the Peace Corps, revamp and streamline the well-known AmeriCorps program, reorganize all federal service programs, form a civilian-service corps styled after “the best aspects of military service,”[5] and enlarge AmeriCorps. As the Corporation for National and Community Service details in its “History of National Service,” this is nothing new: 

In 1910, US philosopher William James called for the “conscription of the whole youthful population to form for a certain number of years a part of the army enlisted against nature.” Twenty-three years later, FDR’s Civilian Conservation Corps did just that. 

What the post-FDR government service programs lacked in utopian rationale, they made up for in sheer numbers. Kennedy created the Peace Corps in 1961 to deploy young Americans around the world on humanitarian missions. Not to be outdone, President Lyndon Johnson established VISTA, the National Teacher Corps, JobCorps and other military-sounding organizations to wage his war on poverty. The Youth Conservation Corps was formed in 1970, followed by the Young Adult Conservation Corps in 1978. In the 1980s, Campus Outreach Opportunity League (COOL), Youth Service America and other organizations were founded at the local level to attract young people to service. By 1990, President George H.W. Bush had launched the federal Points of Light Foundation and opened the Office of National Service inside the White House. Clinton commissioned the first 20,000 AmeriCorps workers in 1994. By the time he left office, some 200,000 Americans had participated in the program—at a cost to the taxpayers of about $15,000 each. 

Yet after 70 years of federal service programs, proponents of national service still complain that not enough Americans are serving and those who do aren’t serving enough. Their solution is not to pause and reconsider the slide toward mandated service, but to propose newer, larger programs that expand Washington’s role in our lives.  

Indeed, it seems that a narrow definition of public service often leads to the expansion of government, while an expansive definition of public service helps to limit the size of government and bring about the balance described at the outset of this essay. Think about it: If public service is something that only people connected to government or politics can do, then the only way to ensure that Americans are serving is for them to contribute more time to the state or for the state to create more opportunities for public service.

Consider, as evidence, the embattled AmeriCorps program. Whatever your opinion of AmeriCorps, it is difficult to deny that the program is premised on the notion that government is the critical link between the individual and his or her capacity to serve. Last summer, for example, some 200 corporate leaders published an open letter to the President and Congress lauding the record of AmeriCorps and warning that its ranks would shrink by thousands in 2004 if the federal government didn’t fork over $200 million in new spending. Without the government’s help, the CEOs seemed to argue, Americans can’t—or won’t—serve their fellow citizens.

The CEOs are not alone in viewing service through the prism of government: In the post-September 11 milieu, Bush created USAFreedomCorps to serve as an umbrella for all national service programs. “As a Coordinating Council housed at the White House and chaired by President George W. Bush,” the USAFreedomCorps website explains, “we are working to strengthen our culture of service and help find opportunities for every American to start volunteering.”

In 2001, Senators Evan Bayh and John McCain coauthored the first Call to Service Act, which would have ballooned the AmeriCorps program more than five-fold—from 40,000 workers in 2001 to 250,000 in 2010. (That bill did not become law, but a newer version of the bill is now in Congress.) "Americans again are eager for ways to serve at home and abroad,” the senators explained. “Government should make it easier for them to do so."[6] In other words, before we can help others, Washington needs to help us.

In 1998, President Bill Clinton concluded that AmeriCorps “has given 100,000 young people the opportunity to serve their country”—as if no such opportunity existed before the creation of the program.[7]

Almost a decade earlier, William Buckley wrote a lengthy defense of what might be called “nearly mandatory” national service in his book Gratitude. He based his argument on the premise that “everyone who receives the protection of society owes a return for the benefit.”[8] Buckley was quick to reject “compulsory national service.” He argued instead that government could use sanctions and inducements to promote national service without mandating it. For example, Buckley noted that the federal government could withhold financial aid and state governments could withhold or revoke driver’s licenses from those who were unwilling to serve, while tax breaks could be offered to those who join up.[9]

Of course, these sanctions and inducements, it seems, would have the effect of making such service mandatory. What 18-year-old would rather surrender his driver’s license than enlist in the “National Service Corps”? What college student would choose to cough up $10,000 in loans or cash if she could save it by joining a nearly mandatory government-service program?

The idea of mandated service certainly has currency. Already, some high schools and colleges require students to perform school-approved "volunteer work" prior to graduating. Some employers are mandating the same of employees. When they promoted their super-sized AmeriCorps in 2001-2002, Bayh and McCain argued that “national service should one day be a rite of passage for young Americans.”[10]

Given all the blessings and opportunities afforded us as Americans, one can hardly argue with the goals of Bush, Bayh, McCain, Buckley and other proponents of national service. We do owe our country “a return for the benefit.” Nor can their motives be called into question. As the grandson of a senator and son of a president, Bush has public service flowing through his veins. McCain, whose father and grandfather were naval officers, flew combat missions in Vietnam and was a POW prior to serving in Washington. The son of a senator, Bayh has been in government service most of his adult life. Buckley was an Army draftee at the end of World War II, a candidate for elective office and a presidential emissary, but he arguably has done more for his country outside of government, as a writer and thinker—which underscores the broader point here:

One doesn’t have to serve the government to serve his country. Moreover, short of an imminent threat to the nation, a citizen should not be compelled to serve his country by anything more than his conscience. If he is, it won’t have much meaning. As the Roman philosopher Seneca wrote, “To repay gratitude is a most praiseworthy act.” However, “it ceases to be praiseworthy if it is made obligatory.”[11]

For those Americans who believe government is the glue that holds everything else in place, national service is a solution to the problem of apathy. But for those Americans who believe the individual has rights to exercise free from government interference, and responsibilities to fulfill free from government coercion, mandated national service is a solution in search of a problem.

The Mission Matters

This brings us to the matter of military conscription, a popular solution to the supposed public-service deficit, especially among those who advocate some type of mandated service yet are critical of bloated AmeriCorps-style programs. Citing everything from the need for a common civic experience and the decline of patriotism, to racial inequality and the dearth of military acumen among Members of Congress (in 1971, veterans accounted for 71 percent of Congress; today, it’s less than 34 percent), a growing and eclectic group is advocating a return to the draft. However, they are trying to bring back the draft for all the wrong reasons.

Keeping a promise he made in his 1968 presidential campaign, President Richard Nixon ended the draft in December 1972. Aside for a brief interregnum after World War II and before the Korean War, it had been in effect for the previous three decades. It was expensive, unpopular and, counter-intuitively, unfair. “Military draftees and recruits lost millions of man-years in places like Kiska, Alaska, belowdecks on some stinking supply ship in the Pacific, or stenciling jeeps at Fort Ord in California,” recalls historian Derek Leebaert in The Fifty-Year Wound. As a consequence, Leebaert concludes, “Most of these men’s first impression of public service was that it wasted their time. Later, when others were conscripted after them, they believed it wasted their money as well.” Moreover, thanks to its many loopholes and exemptions, the draft gave Vietnam the dubious distinction of being the first (and hopefully last) major conflict in US history in which the wealthiest Americans were not proportionately represented on the battlefield.[12]

To fix these problems, the Pentagon replaced the draft with an all-volunteer force (AVF). The thinking was that a military comprised solely of people who wanted to serve—even if it was smaller—would be more effective and efficient at performing its mission than one comprised of people who would rather be somewhere else. This was an untested theory, but it proved to be sound. 

Thirty years later, the US military is more lethal, more flexible, more motivated, leaner and smarter than it has ever been. In fact, according to a recent Pentagon briefing, “Virtually all officers have to be college graduates; a high fraction of our officers actually have master’s degrees and a small fraction have PhDs.”[13] Moreover, every soldier, sailor, airman and Marine wants to serve. As Fred Peck, a military writer and retired Marine, wryly observes, “In today’s AVF…it’s a punishment to kick people out. In the draft era it was a punishment to keep them in.”[14] Most important of all, the AVF is without peer on the global battlefield.   

That is, after all, the mission of the US military—to deter and, if necessary, destroy America’s enemies on the field of battle. It is not to restore America’s civic spirit, or to serve as a training ground for Congressmen, or to give young people a sense of purpose and a taste of patriotism. If the military achieves the latter as a byproduct of the former—as in the 1940s—then so much the better. However, when we try to use the military to achieve some non-military social aim—no matter how honorable—we often do more harm than good, as America learned during the ferocious and unnecessary fights over gays in the military and women in combat.  

Consider Rep. Charles Rangel’s quixotic effort in 2003 to reinstate the draft. By his own admission, he wasn’t motivated by a desire to make sure the Pentagon had the manpower to meet the rising demands of war. In fact, Rangel was an opponent of the war in Iraq and is a critic of much of the rest of the Bush administration’s anti-terror campaign. Instead of helping the Pentagon, Rangel wanted to make sure Americans “shoulder the burden of war equally,” which sounds reasonable. Who could argue with the principle of shared sacrifice? According to Rangel, himself a combat veteran, “A disproportionate number of the poor and members of minority groups make up the enlisted ranks of the military,” and hence bear a heavier burden in times of war. Renewing the draft, he concluded last spring, would spread that burden across US society and force the nation’s leaders to be more cautious.[15] 

However, Rangel was operating under a false premise. As Mackubin Owens, a professor at the Naval War College, explains, “The claim of disproportionate minority casualties wasn’t true during the Vietnam War…[and] it is even less true today.” In Vietnam, 86 percent of the Americans killed were white; 12.5 percent were black, which was actually less than the corresponding Census numbers of 13.1 percent.[16] In today’s wars, where pilots and Special Forces do much of the fighting and dying, the numbers are even less reflective of the country as a whole—but not in the manner Rangel would have us believe: As a USAToday analysis revealed, African Americans comprise about 2 percent of Air Force pilots, 2.5 percent of Navy pilots, 5 percent of Army Green Berets, and 10.6 percent of Army combat infantrymen.[17]  

Given the global war on terror, stabilization missions in Iraq and Afghanistan, looming challenges on the Korean peninsula, and decades-old commitments in Europe and the Pacific, a revived military draft may yet be necessary; but that decision should be based on military needs, not political misconceptions or desirable social aims.  

Rangel has every right to oppose this war and the next, but it’s regrettable that he chose to use race to make his case. After all, splitting America and its military into a racial kaleidoscope doesn’t promote much unity. And without unity, it’s hard to promote service to a cause greater than self—and even harder to win a war.  

Now and Then

Indeed, proponents of government-centered service programs are quick to argue that Americans are too self-centered to think about others, too oblivious and distracted to care about their country, too soft to sacrifice, that we lack the inclination to serve which characterized earlier generations. And at first glance, they appear to be right: During World War II, my grandfathers and their generation marched off to Africa, Europe, and the Pacific's mosaic of islands and reefs. Some 400,000 of them never returned. On the home front, the wives, sweethearts, and sisters of America's fighting men served their country by donating metal and tin, giving up their nylon stockings, making do with bald tires and meatless Mondays, rationing gasoline, and forming an army of their own to operate and man the country's armament factories.

In the war on terror, by contrast, Uncle Sam hasn’t made any such demands of the American people. In fact, during those first months after the attacks on Manhattan and the Pentagon, as the economy staggered, Bush urged Americans to "visit Disney World and America's other vacation spots." Congress passed an array of wartime tax cuts to prime the pump of American consumerism. Automakers, hotels and airlines offered enticing packages to pry open our wallets and "keep America moving." What’s more, there's no military draft; there's not even a push to recruit more troops. Service to country seems like little more than a punch line.

However, post-September 11 America is not all that different from post-Pearl Harbor America. Consider a collection of World War II-era polling data unearthed by The American Enterprise magazine. In 1942, after a year of fighting, only 23 percent of Americans said they had volunteered for civilian defense programs. In 1944, 66 percent of Americans said their fellow citizens weren’t taking the war seriously enough, and 45 percent of Americans said they went about their business as if there were no war at all. In 1945, fully 64 percent of Americans said they had not made any real sacrifice for the war.[18] Leebaert adds, “After two years of fighting, nearly a third of the country did not know that the Philippines had fallen, and twice that many had never heard of the Atlantic Charter.”[19]

Free and Good

The purpose here is not to smear the “golden age” of service, sacrifice and civic patriotism, but rather to put things in perspective. Americans are individualistic and somewhat distrustful of government by nature. Hence, they don’t flock to government-service programs. However, when government stays out of the way, they do serve and sacrifice for each other. As de Tocqueville observed, it is freedom itself that “leads a great number of citizens to value the affection of their neighbors and their kindred, perpetually brings men together, and forces them to help one another in spite of the propensities that sever them.”[20] 

According to the eminent nonprofit scholar Richard Cornuelle, Americans have always wanted a nation that is both free and good. Writing in his landmark work Reclaiming the American Dream, he notes that “our founders took pains to design a government with limited power, and then carefully scattered the forces which could control it.” That would help nurture freedom. To promote a good society, “We developed a genius for solving common problems. People joined together in bewildering combinations to found schools, churches opera houses, co-ops, hospitals, to build bridges and canals, to help the poor.”[21]

Our ancestors were committed to living independent lives, but to survive and thrive they also had to be interdependent. The result was, in a sense, a nation of servants.  

According to Cornuelle, “The service motive is at least as powerful as the desire for profit or power.”[22] Like the profit motive, it can be curbed or encouraged by external forces: Just as burdensome tax policies, corruption and regulations can stifle an individual’s desire to make a profit, the government’s co-opting of public service can stifle an individual’s desire to serve. In other words, if government does too much, it could have the effect of discouraging people from serving their neighbor and nation. It is basic human nature that when a neighbor’s needs appear to be met, the desire to serve ebbs. People simply won’t take an active part in their nation or their neighborhoods if someone or something else is already playing that role. If, as de Tocqueville argued, “Personal interest is restrained when confronted by the sight of other men’s misery,” then the converse is true as well: Personal interest is unleashed when that misery or need is being met by something else, especially the state. And once unleashed, it grows into the selfishness de Tocqueville feared and today’s advocates of government-endorsed, taxpayer-financed national service are right to criticize.[23]

Americans have combated this selfishness not with government, but with a vast array of what de Tocqueville called associations and free institutions—non-government organizations that keep us connected to each other and keep the government at bay. These organizations remind us “that it is the duty as well as the interest of men to make themselves useful to their fellow creatures.”[24] This is the essence of public service—to be useful to your fellowman—and despite the smothering embrace of government, Americans continue to fulfill this duty.

According to studies conducted by the Independent Sector, a coalition of nonprofit groups, there are 1.6 million charities, social welfare organizations, and religious congregations in the United States. The number of American adults who volunteer in any given year ranges between 84 million and 110 million. Together, this army of volunteers works 15.5 billion man-hours a year, representing the equivalent of over 9 million full-time employees. Astonishingly, they aren’t being induced or paid to serve; they are able to serve without any guidance from Washington; and they are more effective and far less expensive than their counterparts in government-run programs.[25]

The evidence is literally all around us. Consider the Habitat for Humanity branch that builds homes for the homeless and hopeless, the church that delivers food to shut-ins, the law firm that does pro bono work for immigrants and paupers, the physicians group that quietly provides “charity care,” the clinic that donates supplies to a school nurse’s office, the foundation that helps build universities and hospitals, the business that partners with a community group to clean up a neighborhood, the Little League dads and Scout moms who instill values of good citizenship and hard work to the children in their care, or for that matter any parent. As the British progressive George Bernard Shaw concluded, “Perhaps the greatest social service that can be rendered by anybody to this country and to mankind is to bring up a family.”

All of these people and institutions serve the public in some significant way—and this is just the tip of the iceberg. The line between public service and the private sector—indeed, between government and non-government service—is rapidly blurring, as faith-based organizations and corporations partner with federal, state and local governments to provide goods and services that once were the sole responsibility of government.

For example, according to Government Executive magazine, the Pentagon is increasingly “hiring contractors to provide support behind the lines.” Companies such as Brown and Root are based alongside US forces throughout the Balkans. They repair vehicles, build barracks, operate convenience stores, manage 95 percent of the Army’s rail lines and airfields, cook meals, wash laundry and, in the words of one employee, “do everything that does not require us to carry a gun.” Government Executive found that for every two troops deployed in the Balkans, there are three contractors. A little over a decade ago, by way of comparison, there was just one contractor for every 100 troops in the Gulf.[26]Today, there is one contractor for every ten troops in Iraq.[27] Everywhere they are deployed, both the troops and the contractors are in harm’s way, as a flurry of prewar attacks underscored last January. A civilian contractor based at Camp Doha in Kuwait was killed, another wounded, during the buildup.

The employees of these quasi-government organizations and government subcontractors are in a sense public servants. They may be public servants twice removed—but they’re still serving the public.  


Every American has the capacity and opportunity to serve something greater than self, and countless millions do so everyday. Sometimes they do so through government, but often they do not. 

If the goal is to maintain a good society, or to build a better society, then counteracting selfishness with service is indeed important. However, Washington does not need to pass new legislation, restart the draft, or create new programs to achieve that balance. In fact, rather than expanding programs, Washington needs to expand its definition of public service. As the poet Robert Browning observed, “All service ranks the same with God.”

[1] George W. Bush, November 8, 2001, www.whitehouse.gov.

[2] Alexis de Tocqueville, Democracy in America, p.395.

[3]National Commission on the Public Service: Revitalizing the Federal Government for the 21st Century, Urgent Business for America, p.1.

[4] See “Immigrant Soldiers,” Wall Street Journal, April 4, 2003; Brendan Mintier, “Jose Antonio Gutierrez,” Wall Street Journal, April 4, 2003.

[5] See S.1274, The Call to Service Act of 2003.

[6] Bayh/McCain, “A new start for national service,” New York Times, November 6, 2001.

[7] Bill Clinton, “Nurturing Citizens Service,” US Society and Values, September 1998, USIA.

[8] Buckley, Gratitude, 1990, p.18.

[9] Buckley, pp.141-145

[10] Bayh/McCain, “A new start for national service,” New York Times, November 6, 2001.

[11] Seneca, On Benefits, p.137.

[12] Derek Leebaert, The 50-Year Wound, p.xii, p.357.

[13] Pentagon Briefing on the All Volunteer Force, January 13, 2003, www.defenselink.mil.

[14] Fred Peck, “The Draft Debate,” American Legion magazine, June 2003.

[15] Charles Rangel, “Bring back the draft,” New York Times, December 31, 2002.

[16] Mackubin Owens, “The color of combat,” National Review Online, October 4, 2003.

[17] Tom Squitieri, Dave Moniz, “Front-line troops disproportionately white, not black; number refute long-held belief,” USAToday, January 21, 2003.

[18] “Opinion Pulse,” The American Enterprise, January/February 2003, p.62.

[19] Derek Leebaert, The 50-Year Wound, p.7.

[20] De Tocqueville, p,401.

[21] Richard Cornuelle, Reclaiming the American Dream, p.21.

[22] Richard Cornuelle, Reclaiming the American Dream, p.61.

[23] De Tocqueville, Memoir on Pauperism, p.56.

[24] De Tocqueville, p.402.

[25] Independent Sector, “Giving and Volunteering in the United States in 2001,” independentsector.org; Independent Sector, “The New Nonprofit Almanac in Brief: Facts and figures on the independent sector 2001,” independentsector.org.

[26] George Cahlink, “Army of contractors,” Government Executive, February 1, 2002.

[27] Kenneth Bredemeier, “Thousands of private contractors support US forces in Persian Gulf,” Washington Post, March 3, 2003.