July 21, 2015

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Buckley vs. Friedman on Service-Part 2

This is part 2 of a series on national service and the Franklin Project. Read part 1 here.

First, answer this for yourself: would you vote for William F. Buckley Jr?

Milton Friedman on National Service

My friend Lloyd Sloan points out that Milton Friedman disagreed with Buckley’s call for national service. It seems appropriate, then, to view the idea of a service ethos through the eyes of two champions of conservatism of the 20th century.


Let’s start with this reflection on time spent skiing with Milton Friedman and William F. Buckley  in which A. Lawrence Chickering wrote:

Some of the most interesting conversations focused on the differences between Milton’s libertarian emphasis on individual freedom and Bill’s more explicit understanding that freedom depends on values of responsibility and order beyond the self. An example was their differences on the idea of national service, which Bill endorsed in his 1990 book Gratitude. Although Bill advocated voluntary service, Milton objected to the government’s sponsorship of it, which included subsidies for education. I do not want to give the impression that Milton did not understand this crucial point about the importance of both freedom and order (responsibility), which returns to Irving Kristol’s argument about integrating libertarian and traditionalist thought. Milton often said he was convinced that the greatest threat to freedom in the world was the decline of both personal and social responsibility. But this primal insight never (to my knowledge) found its way into his writing, and I think that is a great pity.

Assuming Mr. Chickering, a fellow at the Hoover Institution, was telling the truth, we can safely say that Milton Friedman was conflicted on the matter of national service. In other words, he agreed with much of what Buckley wrote in Gratitude about the benefits of a national-service ethos, but not with Buckley’s prescription.

I commiserate with Chickering’s lament that Friedman kept this conflict to himself, publicly remaining pure to libertarian absolutism. It’s a shame, really, because that public absolutism serves as an example to many of us who avoid challenging our own beliefs and prejudices. Failure to acknowledge that we might be wrong is a surefire way to end up wrong.

Having just published Gratitude, on December 13, 1990 Mr. Buckley invited Professor Friedman to challenge Buckley’s proposal on Firing Line. In that debate, Friedman argued that Buckley’s plan might be voluntary for the people who engage (or not) in their year of service, but the plan was involuntary on another level because everyone had to pay for it.


Friedman’s Concerns Were Valid

We should heed Friedman’s concerns. The federal government bulges with programs that it should not run, funded with taxes it should not raise. As I mentioned in part 1, Buckley does allow Congress to establish and fund the administrative office to oversee the program. Buckley’s plan does not use federal tax dollars to fund the services themselves.

And, while Friedman acknowledges the lack of gratitude in America in 1990 (which has grown far worse since), he believes the cause of the decline in appreciation for our inheritance is government activism. “Everyone takes it for granted,” says Friedman, “that if there’s a problem, the government’s going to take care of it.” Again, I believe the Professor is on to something.

But Friedman seems to misunderstand Buckley’s proposal on a key point.

Friedman claims in the debate that the state would direct people to do its bidding. That’s not what Buckley had in mind. While the government would be involved in the credentialing process, states, charities, churches, and possibly even businesses would choose the projects and direct volunteer efforts.

The Debate Continues

In the end, the debate is unsatisfying. Friedman’s strongest argument is that government programs launched with the best of intentions tend to go horribly wrong. No one can argue, for instance, that the Department of Education made education worse. And the war on poverty wasted $22 trillion dollars and lifted no one out of poverty. And the many housing programs reduced the availability of affordable housing. Moreover, as sociologist Charles Murray has shown, the housing programs made life worse, not better, for those who passed through the system.

But Friedman ultimately conceded to Buckley’s observation that America’s ethos wants for a stronger sense of responsibility to our country and its people. Friedman believes that shrinking government will achieve that end, but he has no evidence that it will. Buckley believes that a year of national service will engender appreciation for what we have, and Buckley has some evidence: the World War II generation.

An Expectation of Service

Sane people did not want to go off to war in Europe or the Pacific in 1941. But they did, by the millions. And those who stayed at home, by and large, served the cause through rationing, material drives, air raid preparation, and more. There was a draft, of course, but the real consequence of failing to serve was the social stigma attached to able-bodied citizens who didn’t serve.

It is exactly that ethos of service that Buckley and the Franklin Project promote.

Buckley’s prescription may not be the best. We probably don’t need a big new government program to run this thing. And Stanley McChrystal doesn’t think we need one.

McChrystal told Business Insider:

Creating a big government agency isn’t the mechanism to do this.

We’re trying to take existing organizations like Teach for America and expand those. Then Cisco, the corporation, has donated money and helped to develop a digital platform that is going to give us a 21st-century ability to match opportunities and people looking for a service year opportunity.

I think we create a marketplace to do this that obviously starts slowly and then builds up momentum. And then once we get to the point where people really believe that service is not only a good thing to do — in an altruistic sense as citizen — but it also advantages them.

And McChrystal recognizes that social norms, not coercion, will be most effective in building this ethos:

Now, I can’t prove this, but our sense is that if we get to 25%, you probably get the critical mass, because what we’re trying to do is get this into the culture of America so that service is voluntary but it’s expected. Meaning if you go to interview for a job, you go to apply to a school, you go to run for congress, people are going to naturally ask, Where did you serve?

Buckley went a bit further than General McChrystal does. His program would deny federal aid for education to anyone who failed to serve, similar to the selective service registration requirement most of us were obliged to meet in order to qualify for federally backed student loans. Buckley would also encourage states to deny driver’s licenses to people fail to serve on the principle that society may withhold privileges from those who refuse to serve society’s purposes.

Let’s compare Buckley’s proposal to the Franklin Projects.

Buckley vs. Franklin

Buckley wanted a federal agency; Franklin Project wants to expand existing federal projects. Buckley wanted 80 percent compliance; Franklin Project hopes for about 25 percent. Both Buckley and Franklin Project agree on the need for stronger national ethos of service to a cause larger than ourselves, namely, our country and its heritage. Buckley proposed material inducements to service, such as denial of privileges to those who don’t serve. I cannot find a similar proposal from the Franklin Project.

On one point, I categorically prefer the Franklin Project over Buckley’s proposal: Buckley did not include military service as a form of service, but the Franklin Project does.

On the other hand, I categorically reject numerous points in the Franklin Project’s plan–objections will address tomorrow in part 3.

The Question Continues

Back to my original question. I’ve seen a few people write that they would not vote for Eric Greitens because he, like William F. Buckley, advocates a renewed national ethos of service and gratitutde. Those who hold this position must also hold that they would not vote for William F. Buckley for the same reason. It’s okay to prefer other candidates to Mr. Greitens on this or other grounds; it’s logically inconsistent to say it’s national service was okay for Buckley but not for Eric Greitens.

Now, one more question: would you vote for Ronald Reagan for governor?

Reagan seemed to understand the need for a service ethos. California in18283_lg 1971 was not the place or time for a program of service. It was the tune in, turn on, drop out capital of the world. That didn’t stop Reagan from launching the California Conservation Corps (then called the Ecology Corps), which Buckley describes in Gratitude:

Its success is generally attributed to the leadership of B. T. Collins, an ex-Green Beret who lost an arm and a leg in Vietnam and did not return from Southeast Asia to America in order to suffer fools gladly. He gave the organization a motto (“Hard work, low pay, miserable conditions”) as also a set of rules (“No booze, No dope, No violence, No destruction of state property, No refusal to work”). Needless to say such a regimen generated a considerable dropout rate (only one third of those joined the program completed a year. The Collins Rule or rehabilitation? If you drop out, you many not apply for reentry). Reveille is at five, a “quiet hour” begins at ten P.M., and lights go out at eleven. An interesting requirement: every California CC is required to write something every day; mostly, these have been journals of the day’s activities. The design is to teach young people how to express themselves, how to externalize their thoughts in writing, the better to equip them to handle their work and their lives after leaving the CC. The work has been mostly ecological in nature: that, plus maintenance of the public places. In the opinion of Professor Moskos1, ‘the California Conservation Corps stands as a preeminent example of how a comprehensive national-service program might operate at the state level." The cost, in 1986, was $19,000 per volunteer.

It seems to me that a service program informed by conservative principles, dedicated to improving the volunteers as much as the volunteers improve society, affords the best chance to infuse  our country with the ethos Buckley promoted. If Reagan could do it, why can’t we? And if you wouldn’t vote Buckley, do lament Reagan’s two terms as governor of California?

Finally, it’s okay to say we don’t need a stronger service ethos, but saying so doesn’t mean we won’t get one.

Tomorrow in part 3, I will dig into the meat of the Franklin Project plan– a plan that leaves much to be desired and includes much to be discarded. Part 4 will attempt to make the case for why conservatives would do well to involve themselves in shaping a service ethos rather than stomping our feet and saying “no.” Part 5 will provide a new, conservative platform for service in the 21st century and ideas for bringing our vision to reality.

Thanks for reading.

P.S. I encourage you to read Mr. Chickering’s entire article for fantastic anecdotes and memories like this one:

One morning we went to the Alta Lodge ski shop to buy various trifles. I finished my shopping and impatiently waited for him [Milton Friedman] at the door of the shop. “Got everything you need?” I asked. “Nope,” he responded. “But I’ve got everything I’m willing to pay for.”

1 Professor Charles Moskos, then of Northwestern University, was the chief author of a bill proposed by Senator Sam Nunn of Georgia. While Buckley dismissed Nunn’s bill as a typical Democrat spending spree, he referred to Professor Moskos’s research throughout the book Gratitude.