January 31 2012

National Service Programs are Still a Bad Idea

Libby Jacobson

In his latest New York Times column, David Brooks takes up Charles Murray’s fight against class divergence in America.

Murray’s story contradicts the ideologies of both parties. Republicans claim that America is threatened by a decadent cultural elite that corrupts regular Americans, who love God, country and traditional values. That story is false. The cultural elites live more conservative, traditionalist lives than the cultural masses.

Democrats claim America is threatened by the financial elite, who hog society’s resources. But that’s a distraction. The real social gap is between the top 20 percent and the lower 30 percent. The liberal members of the upper tribe latch onto this top 1 percent narrative because it excuses them from the central role they themselves are playing in driving inequality and unfairness…

The truth is, members of the upper tribe have made themselves phenomenally productive. They may mimic bohemian manners, but they have returned to 1950s traditionalist values and practices. They have low divorce rates, arduous work ethics and strict codes to regulate their kids.

Members of the lower tribe work hard and dream big, but are more removed from traditional bourgeois norms. They live in disorganized, postmodern neighborhoods in which it is much harder to be self-disciplined and productive.

So what’s Brooks’ answer to increasing cultural and lifetime outcome disparity? Easy: create a National Service Program that would “force members of the upper tribe and lower tribe to live together, if only for a few years.” Where Murray preaches for more civic engagement from the haves, Brooks wants to force every man and woman to give up “only a few years” of their youth in service to the government. Stop me if I’m wrong, but doesn’t service cease to be “service” once it’s compelled? Ignoring the moral implications of forced government service, would the country really be better off sending its young adults into menial public service jobs? The post office might arguably save money by hiring 18-year-olds temps who won’t unionize or draw pensions, though I’d bet the level of service would be even more abysmal. And is there any reason to think that the upper and lower classes won’t still be divided by the types of jobs they qualify for? Does anyone expect a senator’s daughters will be picking up roadside trash alongside the kid who sold weed in high school?

To be sure, the growing disparity in achievement, health, wealth and life stability between the upper and lower layers is worrisome. Brooks and Murray aren’t the only writers who’ve spilled ink over the “class gap.” Brookings’ fellow Scott Winship recently wrote in the National Review that income and educational mobility has been much lower in America since the 50s than we thought. Megan McArdle, jumping off from his essay, theorized that perhaps the middle- and upper-classes’ meritocratic values – education, hard work, civic engagement, and respect for the law – are in a sense heritable; that is, successful parents pass these values onto their children, creating a self-perpetuating upward spiral that closes out the lower ranks.

There's no easy answer to the dilemma of diverging American values. Murray's answer is to urge parents in the upper-crust to be more cognizant of the crisis, a bottom-up solution that aims to change the way people look at the problem. Brooks, on other hand, offers only a big-government solution.

 

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