Skip to Content, Navigation, or Footer.

Taking Sides: Should the U.S. have a civil service requirement?

Adam Asher '15: Yes

Two summers ago, I worked in the District Office of my congresswoman, assisting mostly with Medicaid and Social Security casework. I learned a lot about what government can and cannot do. For example, if people living the poverty line had surgery and Medicaid had neglected to pay the hospital, they might find themselves hounded by calls for the payment, for which they weren’t responsible. In that case, we could call the hospital and tell them to lay off, while also telling the local Medicaid office to pay up.

That was the easy part. The hard part was when an old woman called who didn’t qualify for Medicaid or other kinds of government assistance but was still having trouble paying for her dialysis, due to lack of health insurance. In that case, there was nothing we could do besides send her on her way with a nice letter. That encounter with the cruelty and unfairness of our health care system is part of what pushed me to develop the belief that we desperately need a national health insurance program.

Not everyone faced with this situation would agree with me. Some might conclude that we need to ensure that medical costs are low enough that everyone can afford health care. And that’s okay. I believe that the United States should institute a civil service requirement because working in government forces you to challenge your own political views. More importantly, by seeing where the shortcomings of government lie, citizens can more effectively target their reform efforts.

Who could more successfully push for lower health care costs? Someone who has worked for the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services and has seen how prices are set for government health care programs, or someone who has not? By working within the government, you have the unique opportunity to see how the political process works.

If all people in America had the opportunity and the obligation to work for their government at the beginning of their careers, we would have a more informed and invested citizenry. From reading his past work, I know Hudson is a proponent of limited government. But as matters stand today, we regularly give government access to our money when we pay taxes. Giving it access to a small portion of our time is no different. In some cases — like the draft — we already do.

And if you hate working for the government, great! You know exactly where to start dismantling it to build something better. We can all agree that there are major systemic flaws in our government today. If we ever want to have a shot at true change, we have to start from a baseline of true knowledge. Requiring citizens to serve their country for a period of time is the best way to ensure this happens.

Adam Asher ’15 is concentrating in classics. Follow him on Twitter (@asheradams).

 

Oliver Hudson '14: No

The idea of a civil service requirement is repugnant to believers in a free society. “Civil service” is a feel-good phrase obscuring a disturbing philosophy that your life does not belong to you but to the government. You may have ambitions and your own idea of what “civil service” means, but the government has priority in deciding your future. Only once you are emancipated from your period of civil servitude may you pursue your dreams.

Imagine if a group of others voted to decide how you would spend a period of your life. Would you want that? Would you not ask whether you should have the right to decide your own future? Well, how then could you accept civil service, which would allow even more people you don’t know to decide part of your future. Slavery gave a person’s life to the highest bidder. Civil service gives a person’s life to the project with the highest vote tally.

It is no surprise that civil service requirements existed in those societies with the least respect for human dignity. In Nazi Germany, the “Law of the Restoration of the Professional Civil Service” forced teachers to teach a Nazi-approved curriculum. In North Korea, men must join the military for three to five years because it is the “supreme duty and honor of citizens.” Unfortunately, many wouldn’t bat an eye if told mandatory recycling was the “supreme duty and honor of citizens,” but the principle is the same.

Many will object, saying civil service can be beneficial to society. To accept this view means to accept two beliefs. First, that requiring people to “do good” is right. Second, that civil service brings about more benefits to society than would otherwise arise if people were left to choose their own pursuits. Since I have addressed the first belief’s insult to human dignity, I shall address the second belief.

Economist Adam Smith famously said, “By pursuing his own interest he frequently promotes that of society more effectually than when he really intends to promote it.” Smith’s claim has been born out in history. Those societies with the greatest level of well-being today have fewer restrictions on freedom to act in self-interest. According to the 2012 Fraser Index of Economic Freedom, the freest countries in the world are concentrated in Europe, North America and certain regions of Asia, while the least free are in Africa and the Middle East. It is clear that this freedom, not a mandatory civil service requirement, has meant the difference between desirable societies and undesirable societies. To make life better, let’s allow people to pursue what they think is best. A civil service requirement is bad morality and bad economics.

In the words of John Galt, “I swear by my life, and my love of it, that I will never live for the sake of another man, nor ask another man to live for mine.” Contact Oliver Hudson ’14 at oliver_hudson@brown.edu.

 

Hudson's rebuttal:

Asher makes two arguments for a civil service requirement. First, he says, “working in government forces you to challenge your own political views.” Second, Asher says that experience in government makes you see “where the shortcomings of government lie,” preparing you to reform government. To Asher, these two reasons are sufficient to conclude that everyone should work in government.

Asher’s argument boils down to the following — I like something, therefore it should be required of everyone. That is, Asher thinks civil service is good and therefore everyone else should do it too. Asher cites no evidence besides his experience working in his congresswoman’s office to conclude that everyone in America should work for the government.

Consider an identical argument. Perhaps I work at an ice cream store and come to believe eating different ice creams challenges my views about different ice cream brands. Perhaps I also think eating ice cream gives me experience to reform the shortcomings of the ice cream industry. So I argue that everyone must work in ice cream stores. I think Asher would not agree with this hypothetical situation requiring everyone to work in ice cream stores. So why does he accept this exact reasoning when applied to a requirement to work in government?

Besides the philosophical flaws in Asher’s reasoning, some of his claims are false. He argues that those with experience in politics have a greater chance to reform politics. But it is accepted wisdom that people with a financial interest in a situation generally do not make objective decisions. Why, then, wouldn’t involvement in politics encourage “reforms” for the benefit of politicians and the politically connected but not necessarily for the American people?

Asher claims taxes and the draft are precedents for requiring citizens to give their time to civil service. But whether something similar has been done in the past has nothing to do with whether it is right. Asher has noble intentions about improving government. But his proposal would deny the fundamental American rights of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.

 

Asher's rebuttal:

If you don’t believe government has any positive role to play in its citizens’ lives and no right to make demands of them, then in your eyes, I’m not going to win this argument.

As I said in my opening statement, when we ratified the U.S. Constitution, we entrusted our government to levy taxes and gave it the right to a portion of our money. Entrusting government with a portion of our time is no different.

Hudson says, “The idea of a civil service requirement is repugnant to believers in a free society,” going on to point out that the requirement has existed in such states as Nazi Germany and North Korea. Cherry-picking such extreme examples makes for an intriguing piece, but it fails to tell the whole story.

Two other examples of countries with civil service requirements — military conscription, specifically, which I am not advocating — are Switzerland and Finland. Switzerland was in fact rated by the Heritage Foundation, a conservative think-tank, as one of the top five most economically free countries in the world. Finland, meanwhile, is consistently praised as a paragon of both  freedom of the press and freedom of speech. Clearly, other free societies have not found the idea of serving one’s country for a brief period to be so morally repugnant.

To counter Hudson’s quote from what I’m sure is his well-thumbed copy of “The Wealth of Nations,” let me invoke the words of President John F. Kennedy.

I’m sure you’ve all heard the famous words of his inaugural speech, “Ask not what your country can do for you, but what you can do for your country.” But there is also a second, less-quoted part of the speech. It reads, “Ask not what America will do for you, but what together we can do for the freedom of man.”

Short of a revolution, our government is not going anywhere. If we want to make it better and serve the people more effectively, it is our obligation to be a part of that solution, a goal that can be furthered by enforcing a civil service requirement.



Popular



Powered by SNworks Solutions by The State News
All Content © 2022 The Brown Daily Herald, Inc.