They just don't get it in Whitehall, I was reminded today. You'd think that when the policy monkeys are thinkin' and dinkying, they'd look in the dictionary from time to time. Just to clarify, here is what the Oxford American Dictionary has as the definition of to volunteer:
freely ofer to do something
freely ofer to do something
Simple enough. And this is what they have for to force:
make (someone) do something against their will
make (someone) do something against their will
Only in Whitehall can you force someone to volunteer without being told the obvious fallacy in your thinking. Well, I'm no Socrates, but here I am in political gadfly mode. Here's an (open) email I've just sent to my MP regarding his party's plans to do so...
Back at the beginning of January, David Cameron proposed a plan which would, in the words of the BBC News report, make it so that "School-leavers could be forced to do community work under a Conservative government". Mr Cameron then described this "new enterprise as something for every young person in our country. An essential part of growing up to be a British citizen, not just an add-on extra for a select few".
The then LibDem party leader, Charles Kennedy, responded by saying that "David Cameron wants to portray himself as a liberal but needs to be careful to attribute his 'ideas' to those who are genuinely doing the fresh thinking".
Mr Kennedy's criticism seems too harsh. We all know that it is a time of change in Tory - sorry, Conservative - leadership and ideas. We have had such a scheme in Britain. It was started under the Liberal (George) government back in 1916 using the Military Service Act, and then reintroduced in 1939 by the Conservative (Chamberlain) government in preparation for World War II. After the war, National Service was introduced by Mr Attlee's Labour government in 1949, a scheme which was kept running until the end of 1960, with the last soldier being dismissed in 1963. It is as much a Liberal idea as a Conservative idea, as much a Conservative idea as an Old Labour idea. You've all played with it, and, failing any new ideas, you all want to play with it again.
It does not seem to be that there is any significant difference between the "community work" scheme that Mr Cameron has proposed and the National Service scheme which was in operation from 1949 to 1960. Both require school leavers to serve a term of service doing mundane tasks for the government rather than enjoying the freedom to choose which field of life they wish to enter. Both interfere with the fundamental liberty of the individual, going against their will in service of a "higher good". It does not matter whether the end result is the end of the Nazi regime, a well-ordered society or old people getting cups of cocoa (each of which is arguably a very good end indeed).
If one accepts the doctrine that individuals, having reached the age of majority, should be free to do what they will without interference from the State, then there is no moral difference between slavery, national service and Mr Cameron's (or Mr Kennedy's) proposed scheme of compulsory community work.
This scheme seems to be riding on the coat-tails of the historical accident which makes it so that sixteen year olds can choose to have sex, join the military and pay taxes, yet cannot choose which political party or candidate represents them in Westminster. If democracy is supposed to allow individuals to collectively decide their fate, then the proposed scheme is even worse, since it enslaves without representation.
If the government wishes to support the development of charity, virtue and humanitas in school-leavers, the limit should be with encouragement and perhaps offering some benefit. I do think there is 'phronesis' in helping others, but the sort of work which is envisioned doesn't help the human person develop.
For instance, I know many people who do intellectually challenging charity work. But this involved them spending their own time and intellect developing the skills to do this work. I've spoken to people who are helping develop technology that is being shipped off to help small tribes and communities in Brazil record the culture around them and help build the archive of human knowledge. The skills for that weren't there at sixteen - they needed to spend time learning, working under their own industry and following their own dreams.
Chucking everyone in to charity placement at the age of sixteen to go and make coffee and dig ditches could actually put people off doing charity work which is relevant to them - that aligns with their interests, curiosity and career plans. Charity cannot be forced, helping others can not be made compulsory. It stops being charity when you threaten people in to doing it.
I know that if the government told me, at age sixteen, that I had to go and spend a period of time doing forced charity work, I would have told them to stick it where the sun doesn't shine and bunked off.
On the flip side, the government try and force people to learn (and look how well that works!), so forcing people to volunteer is a logical extension of it...
My questions are:
Is Mr Cameron, and the Conservative Party, intent on carrying on the policy of compulsory enslavement for school-leavers?
If that is the policy, then how can forcing school-leavers to work for the government without pay be seen to be "compassionate"?
Is there any meaningful distinction beyond utility between, say, choosing to enslave school-leavers and choosing to enslave, say, women only or blacks only? If you can discriminate by age, why not by gender or race? Is it because the policy maker simply feels that age is somehow different from these characteristics (that one "chooses their age", perhaps?) or is it just because it is politically expedient to lock young people in to slavery?
Does Mr Cameron realise that the "it's good for them" argument which will no doubt be raised to justify this authoritarian measure is the same argument used by Southern slaveowners to justify the servitude of blacks?
If Mr Cameron's policy is to be realised, will there be support for non-traditional charities and causes, such as the development of free and open source software? I know people who have just finished school who wouldn't dig a ditch or fly a plane to Africa, but would get involved with the development of technology, which benefits everybody from the industries and governments of developing countries to individuals and companies in the West.
If Mr Cameron's policy is to be realised, will teenagers be given a choice of what organisations and causes they are to be involuntarily volunteering for? For instance, will atheists be forced to 'volunteer' for evangelical charities? Will pro-choice teenagers be forced to work for pro-life organisations? What matching procedure will be in place to ensure that a person's skills and interests are met by their 'voluntary' service?
What are the methods by which Mr Cameron resolve the tension between liberty and authority ("a tension that persists to the present day and that we, in the Conservative Party, feel keenly" - L. Fox, 2004)?
Can the many libertarians of the next-generation who are disenchanted with a political system which seems intent on continuing the failing policy of treating it's citizens as pieces of meat to be "watched, inspected, spied upon, directed, law-driven, numbered, regulated, enrolled, indoctrinated, preached at, controlled, checked, estimated, valued, censured, commanded, by creatures who have neither the right nor the wisdom nor the virtue to do so" (Proudhon) trust the new Conservative party to value liberty over the sort of unthinking paternalism which prevails in Whitehall?
If liberty is to be a value of Conservatism, then surely said value is diminished when one's party leader is advocating slavery for school leavers? I can only imagine politicians coming up with the idea: "Volunteering is such a good idea, we want to force everyone to do it!"
Yours, Tom Morris