Bush’s Volunteers: Armed with Ideals

Does George W. Bush’s call for volunteers services smack of Soviet-style socialism?

February 8, 2002

Does George W. Bush's call for volunteers services smack of Soviet-style socialism?

Among the items on President George W. Bush’s wish list in his State of the Union address was a call to all Americans: Devote two years to voluntary community service. Preferably, Mr. Bush would have Americans respond to the call under a new umbrella organization — “USA Freedom Corps.”

At first glance, this new group strikes a particularly un-Republican chord. Yet given the White House’s “faith-based” emphasis in social services, the two-year service concept has a parallel in the Mormon faith.

In that religion, all young men give two years of service to the Church — often proselytizing in distant parts of the world. In the Bush universe, it’s a perfect model for faith-based volunteerism.

Moreover, Mr. Bush’s call builds on a spontaneous wish to volunteer felt by many Americans in after the September 11 terrorist attacks.

Of course, Mr. Bush’s proposal all but ignores the fact that AmeriCorps — the existing national service program that he wants to expand — was established by President Bill Clinton in 1993. That’s no surprise. Almost everything that Mr. Bush’s predecessor accomplished is anathema to conservatives.

But an even more intriguing parallel than the Mormon Church exists for Bush’s call — and it’s one that few Republicans would relish. In the 1920s and 1930s, after Russia’s communist revolution, a call went out from the Soviet government to the country’s young citizens — for “volunteers” to build hydroelectric plants, steel mills and factories.

This call lasted until the very end of the Soviet Union. In the 1960s, young people won “virgin soil” for agriculture. Young Communist League members spent the 1970s building a railway on the Chinese border.

Considerable similarities exist between the Soviet example and Mr. Bush’s plans. The Soviet economy was chronically in shambles, and the state lacked incentives for young people to work in remote places and to endure hardships. Instead of building up a functioning economy, the Soviets preferred to make use of young people’s idealism — or, when that enthusiasm failed, they simply fell back on convict labor.

America’s economy, of course, is the richest in the world. There is plenty of money to spend on better social services, or more teachers, or new childcare centers and nursing homes.

The problem is that this means more taxes — especially on the wealthy — and different national budget priorities. That’s something politicians on both sides of the aisle — Democrats as well as Republicans — do not want to contemplate. Hence, Mr. Bush’s call for volunteers — and the wild bipartisan cheering that greeted it.