William F. Buckley Jr., the nation’s archest conservative, reveals a streak of collective spirit in his 29th book, Gratitude: Reflections on What We Owe to Our Country—a small volume that makes the case for a voluntary system of national service. As both the editor-at-large of National Review, which he founded in 1955, and host of PBS’s Firing Line, Buckley has been an acerbic and wily foe of liberals and of sprawling government social programs. Yet his new proposal seems to hark back to liberalism’s most expansive, bighearted initiatives: the WPA, the Peace Corps, the War on Poverty. Seated in the cramped library of the Review, Buckley, who has been married for 40 years to social cyclone Pat Buckley, discussed his proposal with senior writer Ken Gross.
What exactly are you proposing?
That Americans, beginning at age 18, be encouraged to devote a year of their lives to civic or philanthropic work. For instance, helping the elderly and the sick, teaching illiterates, helping with environmental work—there are more than 3 million slots where national service volunteers could profitably serve.
Profitable to whom?
Primarily to themselves. That is a major distinction I stress. Obviously their work would profit others, but it is the effect on the character of the volunteers I am most concerned with. The act of helping someone also helps the individual, whose sensibilities are stimulated.
Would they be paid?
Yes, but only pocket money, about a hundred dollars per week, plus room and board where relevant. But the incentives would add up. Only they would qualify for federal college loans, much as in the GI Bill. The principal pressure, after a few years, would be the judgment of their peers. Especially the affluent and the savvy—they would not shrink, as they did from the Vietnam War, which they found morally ambiguous. It would become humiliating to be a shirker.
Isn’t that a lot to hope for, given the present climate of self-interest?
There is a latent desire to help our society and to tighten the bonds that bring us together. Already tens of millions of Americans donate more than five hours per week to civic or philanthropic work. If the young are reminded that the liberties and immunities we have weren’t gained without tough exertions by our ancestors, there is every reason to believe that they’ll agree: The debt should be paid off.
Why are Americans so indifferent to such values that we need forceful reminding?
Because there hasn’t been any clarion call to the kind of duty I am writing about. When they are students, young people hear airy speeches about the sacrifices of our ancestors, the wise statesmanship of our Founding Fathers, the richness of Western culture—but never in the context of: And what are you going to do to repay that debt?
But don’t things like the Kuwait invasion always come along to create some sense of common interest?
Nobody has been drafted in America for 17 years. Everyone serving in the Gulf is a volunteer. Obviously when we need troops to defend our frontiers, we’ll get them—as volunteers or as conscripts. We don’t need a cold war or a mad Iraqi to generate the perpetual problems requiring voluntary attention that face any society.
So this civilian service would be a sort of civics lesson as well?
It should be made plain, beginning on day one, what the meaning of national service is: an act of gratitude for the benefits of living in our society. Call this indoctrination if you wish, but distinguish it sharply from the kind of indoctrination associated with totalitarian societies. There they are taught to worship the state. Our volunteers would be taught to worship a society that keeps the state at bay. I think that the volunteer is going to become a morally awakened citizen.
So there’s a spiritual aim here as well?
Yes. The work is, of course, secular, but much secular work generates spiritual animation. Most of the time Mother Teresa is engaging in manual labor, but her work is self-sanctifying.
How would you compare your proposal with the big Democratic initiatives of the ’60s: the Peace Corps, VISTA, etc.?
They are related; the principal difference is that the other programs have been made to sound as though only heroic Americans subscribe. Mine would change the focus, suggesting that those who do not subscribe are contemptuous of their heritage and ungrateful.
Isn’t this contrary to the conservative position on large, costly federal programs?
There is no need to federalize the program. A small panel appointed by the President would recommend auxiliary legislation by the federal government, but it would always leave the initiative to the states to devise those service programs and finance them.
So taxpayers foot the bill?
Yes, but it is not clear that they won’t get back more than they paid for.
Do your fellow conservatives support this?
Some do, some vociferously do not. I respect both factions but predict that the natural conservative sense of duty and of reverence for tradition will gradually win over most conservatives. I have been defending causes thought to be lost for a long time. The idea of national service may be an idea whose time is just around the corner. It wouldn’t surprise me if by the time I die, it were a steady, popular public institution.