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Michael Gerson: The merits of national service

BY MICHAEL GERSON Published: June 26, 2013

This nostalgia is rooted in a deeper insight about self-government. Alexis de Tocqueville warned that a rights-based democracy has a natural tendency toward individualism. The natural centrifugal forces of democracy have been augmented by geographical mobility and technologies that allow for the complete customization of little societies.

How then does a democracy cultivate civic responsibility and shared identity? Taxation allows us to fund common purposes, but it does not provide common experiences. A rite of passage in which young people — rich and poor, liberal and conservative, of every racial background — work side by side to address public problems would create, at least, a vivid, lifelong memory of shared national purposes.

A discrediting tone

The opposition of some conservatives to national service is predictable. Buckley faced critics who dismissed his proposal as “induced gratitude.” To which he responded that all gratitude is induced, or at least taught, given the “disposition of modern man to take for granted everything he enjoys.” Conservatives, on the contrary, should be attracted to the devolution of responsibilities beyond government entirely, to citizens themselves.

This is a strange moment in the conservative movement. Following a period of governmental overreach, a Jefferson-Jackson corrective is predictable and necessary. But a tone of anger and paranoia is discrediting.

The conservative instinct — and America's shared republican tradition — heads in a different direction, toward gratitude for our patrimony and affection for our traditions and institutions, expressed in service to the country and to one another. We honor and cultivate such responsible citizenship because it makes our country, in Buckley's words, “safer, lovelier, and more precious.” And because it strengthens something valuable and unavoidably national: our national character.